Monday, March 30, 2009

Big John’s PFI: Seattle’s Not-So-Secret Food Find

Here at Pacific Northwest Seasons, I’ve written avidly about why we should eat local food, fresh with the season (see my Eating with the Seasons post). After all, our farmers’ markets feature fresh and beautiful local food year-round.

So allow me to contradict myself.

Ever since I discovered PFI’s (Pacific Food Imports) retail store in an old brick warehouse just south of downtown Seattle in the late 1980s, I can’t get enough of this place. Every few months I head to this cornucopia of mostly imported foods to stock up on olive oil from Italy or Spain, Colombian estate chocolate, Spanish aged sherry vinegar, hand-harvested fleur de sel de Guérande from France, Italian pastas of all shapes and sizes, sharp Vermont white cheddar cheese, crispy butter cookies from Holland, and much more.

You can get much of this stuff at some of the higher end grocery store chains like Whole Foods and Metropolitan Market, or at DeLaurenti’s in Pike Place Market. But you’ll pay more (except perhaps at Trader Joe’s). And you’ll miss out on the treasure-hunt feeling you get while wandering around the aisles and nooks in this anti-chain store, discovering exotic and fascinating products.

Finding your way to PFI can be a challenge since it’s not right on the street and the sign is easy to miss. When you do arrive, look for the red-white-green awning (think Italian flag) over the entrance at the bottom level of an unassuming, two-story brick building. This is not your usual shopping area—it’s an old Seattle industrial district sandwiched between railroad tracks and I-5 to the east. Walk up the stairs, pass through the short entryway lined with framed black and white photos, and enter a foodie’s fantasyland.

What you’ll notice first are the colorful shelves and aisles stuffed with jars, bottles, and packages of all shapes and sizes. Or maybe your eyes will land on the long, lit display case to your right full of big wedges and chunks of foreign and domestic cheeses. Grab a cart or a big white bucket to collect your stash and walk around over the uneven cement floors. Maybe today English won’t be the language spoken by most of your fellow customers.

Give yourself some time to explore before grabbing things off the shelves. Need some hard-to-find slabs of Syrian dried apricot paste? No problem! Small burlap bags of artisan sea salt from Bali? Got it. Vivid orange-red jars of chile pepper-eggplant ajvar puree from Bulgaria? Just down the aisle. South African red chile sauce? Tucked between the jars of Indian ghee and Moroccan preserved lemons. I have no idea how to use many of these items, but they offer exciting possibilities.

On a recent visit to PFI, I find myself in the checkout line behind a man with an overflowing grocery cart. “Planning a party?” I ask him. “No.” he replies. “I run a restaurant up in Mount Vernon. I come down here every month to stock up on items I can’t get anywhere else.” For you non-locals, Mount Vernon is about 60 miles north of Seattle. A bit of a trek for groceries

My friend Julie, one of the most innovative and capable cooks I know, shows up behind me in line with a bucket of goodies. “What did you get?” I ask. She pulls out a dark green, slender bottle of avocado oil first. “This is expensive, but it’s a lovely bright green and a perfect garnish to drizzle on pizza or finish dishes.” She also has several cartons of chopped plum tomatoes from Italy that come in handy for her sauces. She wants some good parmesano-reggiano but is daunted by the one pound minimum on cheeses. I ask Louise, a longtime employee behind the counter, if they have any smaller chunks tucked somewhere. “Yea, we have about a two-third pound piece,” she says. Julie and I split it.

Sometimes my favorite products disappear from the shelves. I’ve learned over the years to be patient—sometimes they just as suddenly reappear. My favorite Italian olive
oil, a certified-organic, buttery oil from the Ionian Coast, vanished from the shelves for about 5 years until I just found it there again a few months ago.

This family-run business has been operating for over 40 years. I’ve never seen Big John, who is in his eighties now, but the second-generation is running the business now. Let’s hope the next generation keeps it going at least another 40 years.

When You Go
You won’t find any advertisements for PFI. They get plenty of regular customers via word-of-mouth. Click here for directions. It’s on Sixth Avenue South due east of Qwest Field, Seattle’s NFL football stadium, and just north and east of Safeco Field where the Mariners play. Time your trip carefully. Avoid going right before or after a Seahawks or Mariner’s game or you’ll learn how truly awful Seattle traffic can be. PFI’s hours are somewhat limited: they’re not open evenings, only open until about 3 pm on Saturdays, and closed Sundays.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Carkeek Park’s Snowdrops: Signs of Spring

Last weekend while walking along the Piper’s Creek Trail, I happened to glance left as I crossed the small bridge just north of the orchard. Voila! Strewn among the brown, downed leaves from last fall were masses of slender green shoots and sweet, lily-like flowers.

They’re late, but the snowdrops in north Seattle’s Carkeek Park are in full bloom this week. [February 2014 update, the snowdrops are in full bloom as of February 13 this year!] But hurry, they’ve peaked and likely won’t be so abundant and vivid by next week. With our numerous snowfalls and cold snaps this past winter, the snowdrops (Galanthus nivalus) that usually come up in February are a March treat this year.

This “secret garden” of hundreds, perhaps thousands of delicate little white flowers grows just north of the old orchard above Piper’s Creek. These are remnant bulbs that were probably planted when the site was an old farmstead over 100 years ago (although I’m not sure bulbs survive that long). Since then, the plants have multiplied and spread into several patches growing along and above the small stream that flows into Piper’s Creek next to Piper’s Orchard.

Tread carefully if you decide to get a closer look. Park naturalists want you to stay on the main trails to prevent erosion. Welcome to spring!

When You Go
Click here for a map of Carkeek Park.To get to Carkeek from I-5,
get off on Northgate Way (Exit 173) and head west. Northgate Way becomes NW 105th Street and crosses Aurora Boulevard (SR 99). Turn right on Greenwood Avenue N to NW 110th Street and turn left. Continue about six blocks,the street becomes NW Carkeek Park Road and descends to the main park entrance. Park on the left at the bottom of the hill, before the road splits. Head up (away from Puget Sound) past the water treatment plant and look for the snowdrops on the left just before you get to the orchard.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Riding the Washington State Ferries: Bainbridge Island Afternoon

When people ask me to suggest outings for Seattle visitors, my first response is “Go ride a ferry!” Being surrounded by stunning panoramic views, inhaling the fresh salty sea breeze, maybe spotting porpoises (or even orca whales if you’re really lucky)—a ferry trip across Puget Sound always feels like an adventure. But it’s not just for out-of-towners.

Recently the Society of American Travel Writers listed the Anacortes ferry that threads through the San Juan Islands as one of the most exciting and scenic ferry rides in the world. Closer to Seattle, you can take the Bainbridge Island ferry, spend a few hours exploring, have lunch or dinner on the island, and return to see the city lights twinkling above Elliott Bay.

A few weekends ago I call my sister who lives on Bainbridge and announce I’m coming over for lunch. “I’m going to walk on the ferry, so meet me at the terminal.” Then I catch the 1:20 ferry from Colman Dock, Seattle’s ferry terminal on Elliott Bay just below downtown.

As usual, I head to the ferry’s top deck for the best views. It’s a gorgeous, sunny late winter day. Mount Rainier is out on the southeast horizon, ruggedly handsome in a fresh coat of snow. With blue skies above, the wind-dappled surface of Puget Sound stretches sapphire blue from shore to shore. As the ferry churns steadily across, the deep rumbling of the engines reverberates—chugachugachugachugachuga.

After the 35-minute crossing, my sister calls me when she sees my ferry coming in to Eagle Harbor. Lunch today is at Café Nola, a popular bistro just a few blocks from the ferry terminal in what used to be downtown Winslow. My sister and I both get the daily special—grilled wild Alaska salmon on a bed of roasted seasonal veggies. Hmmm. My niece Willa goes for the childrens’ spaghetti with tomato sauce. The food is good, and the service is much quicker and friendlier than when I was here last summer.

We stroll a half a block up the street to stop in the wonderful Eagle Harbor Books, where my sister works. She introduces me to several of her co-workers, and my niece introduces me to Nikki, the owner’s cute dog who patiently sits behind the counter. I could spend hours browsing here. With an especially literate population, Bainbridge is home to several well-known authors (and a few other celebrities).

For dessert we head to Mora’s for freshly made ice cream, shakes, and frozen yogurt. While standing in line, I see beautiful fat raspberries and blueberries waiting to be piled onto my yogurt, so I order extra berries. I carefully grab a berry in each spoonful of frosty, flavorful vanilla yogurt. Willa goes for a huge chocolate milkshake (that she can’t finish). My sister opts for a light pink grapefruit sorbet. If I lived on the island I’d be at Mora’s a lot. Good thing I don’t.

Heading back toward the ferry, I insist we cruise through the Blackbird Bakery just to look at the confections. I’ve been here on other visits for hot cocoa and chewy cookies.

I dash to catch the 4:35 ferry, which is full of tourists returning and islanders heading to Seattle for Saturday night. Today was a fairly short trip—about 3.5 hours over and back. For those who commute daily across the Sound on a ferry, it’s just a way to work. But I always get a little rush of excitement each time the boat pulls away from the dock.
When You Go
If you’re taking the Bainbridge Island ferry, Sundays are good because there’s free street parking downtown Seattle. Driving a car on the ferry triples to quadruples your fare. A route map of all Washington State Ferries shows you all the options.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Seattle Teahouses: Tea in Coffee Central

What comes to mind when you think of Seattle in the winter? Maybe rain, gray skies, and coffee?

For years tea drinkers in the Northwest have had to suffer many indignities. Like going to an outdoor concert on a chilly evening and finding the only hot drink available is coffee, without even a Lipton’s tea bag in sight. Or asking about the tea selection in a nice restaurant after dinner and always getting the standard reply: black, peppermint, and chamomile (yawn). And the many coffee houses that don’t provide lemon slices to go with tea; I kvetch, “Would you serve coffee without offering cream and sugar?”

But the city that spawned Starbucks has a growing new teahouse scene. Even a former Tully’s coffee shop on Queen Anne Hill was recently replaced by the Teacup.

Four Favorites
Kuan Yin Teahouse in Wallingford paved the way for the new crop of teahouses. Kuan Yin opened almost 20 years ago and still serves pots of exotic teas from around the world in a quasi-Asian/funky old hippie setting. When it was the only teahouse in north Seattle, I used to hang out there to write in my journal while nursing a pot of Wu Wei or World Peace, two floral herbal tea blends. Kuan Yin is still going strong and now offers tea tastings and other special tea-focused events. When I stopped by there last week it was packed. Didn’t used to be…hmmm. I see a trend growing.

The unofficial tea of my writing group is Evening in Missoula from the Teacup. Now in a larger space on a busy corner atop Queen Anne Hill, the Teacup is a sunny, soothing spot to sit and sip. Like many of the teahouses, they sell interesting teapots and other accoutrements along with a selection of high-quality teas from around the world.

My favorite spot to relax over tea in Ballard now is Miro near the north end of historic Ballard Avenue just a block south of Market Street. A couple friends and I usually meet there on Sunday mornings to catch up over tea.

Miro offers close to 200 varieties of mostly organically grown, fair trade teas. Their selection ranges from blacks, botanicals, chai, greens, whites, oolongs, and roiboos teas, with names like Super Monkey, Midnight Blue, and Margaret’s Hope, the first autumn flush of Darjeeling. Several pots of teas for tasting are always lined up near the back counter. And their food and confections are wonderful, not just an afterthought to the exquisite teas. Sometimes I indulge in a handcrafted chocolate truffle made by Cocoa Chai Chocolates, from Seattle artisan chocolatier Ivy Chan. My friends Shari and Maya go for their buttery, sweet lemon drop crepe. Miro's apple/provolone/greens sandwich is so good I’ve tried to recreate it at home with middling success.

Although I don’t often get to the historic Panama Hotel teahouse in Seattle’s International District, I love going there for a fragrant pot of Japanese genmaicha green. This quiet, charming oasis just south of downtown is a long, narrow space lined with exposed brick walls. Besides fine teas, hot cocoas, and coffee, at the counter they also sell locally made cookies, pastries, and manju, a traditional Japanese steamed cake. Good, authentic manju is hard to find in the U.S., and the barista tells me only one Japanese woman in Seattle makes this style.

This restored space lies above the only intact Japanese bathhouse from the first wave of Japanese-born immigrants to the Northwest. Historical black and white photographs line the walls with images of the neighborhood before World War II. Everything changed during the war for the Japanese-American families and merchants here on the West Coast, when they were shipped off to internment camps.

A Few More Good Spots
For years Queen Mary’s, a cozy outpost tucked into a charming brick building just north of University Village, has been offering proper English tea. I don’t get over to that part of town often anymore, but a while back I indulged on afternoon tea with a girlfriend. I felt like I was in an exclusive Victorian English parlor, surrounded by rich Liberty print curtains and crimson walls. Besides the fine black tea, the services comes with tasty little sandwiches, cakes, and scones.

I recently stopped by VitaL-Leaf Tea at the north end of the Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle. VitaL-Leaf serves tea gong fu style, allowing patrons to taste before they purchase. Chinese-born owners Winny and her husband Ben tell me their cousin started VitaL-Leaf in San Francisco, and they decided to bring the show north to Seattle. I have some lovely jasmine pearl tea at home now. You can also buy Yixing clay teapot sets there.

I've heard from a couple sources that Remedy Tea on 15th Avenue on Capitol Hill is worth a stop. And of course you should go visit Zendog Studio Teahouse for gong fu tea in northern Ballard, as I wrote about on February 15 here on Pacific Northwest Seasons.

Go drink tea!