Thursday, July 28, 2011

Northwest Flavors: Dreamland's Creamy, Dreamy Hummos

For you hummos lovers like me, isn’t it a revelation to find a truly great hummos—the kind that sends you scampering to the store for more and more?

After sampling many brands of packaged hummos over the years from stores up and down the West Coast (as well as experimenting in my kitchen), I keep on coming back to Dreamland hummos.

“This is our secret,” says Akram Joudi, owner of Dreamland, a Seattle-area family business that makes this fabulous hummos and other superb Middle Eastern specialty foods, “we make it the way we eat at home.”

I must confess—I’m addicted to their roasted garlic hummos. It’s unusually light and creamy, with a slight tang lurking under the layered flavors of pureed chick peas, tahini, lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and garlic. Each container is studded with a few caramelized cloves of roasted garlic, like little prizes. I suspect Akram’s wife Lamis, who makes the hummos and baba ghanoush, blends it a long time to achieve the almost frothy texture that melts quickly on the tongue.

Apparently others are addicted as well (including Seattle Times food writer/blogger Nancy Leson) because Dreamland’s hummos and baba ghanoush routinely sell out within a day or so of their delivery to my local QFC. Many times I’ve dashed in to grab some, only to find the deli case full of mediocre nationally distributed brands, bereft of Dreamland. I finally got wise and asked the store which day Dreamland delivers their fresh batch each week.

“These are our grandparent’s recipes. They were not in the food business, but we knew they were doing the best (food),” Akram tells me with obvious pride. His family immigrated to the U.S. from Lebanon in 1986. Fortunately for me and many other Northwesterners, they came to Seattle, where they had an excellent connection in the developing food scene. Saleh of the much beloved former Saleh al Lago restaurant is the brother of Lamis.

“We started our business on May 15, 1986, to be exact,” says Akram with a slightly nostalgic smile. “I remember the day.”

Akram is a handsome, dignified man with a thick silver hair and light beard. He wears a neatly pressed suit jacket as he gives me a tour of their small but clean and spacious plant in Shoreline. He has graciously allowed me to stop by for a visit, where each day a crew of family members and a few other workers carefully prepare fresh batches of delectable Mediterranean dips, salads, and falafel pita sandwiches.

“We start by making our food from scratch. For the baba ghanoush we roast, not bake, the eggplant, and we soak and cook the beans for the hummos and salads. Everything is all natural, with no additives.” he explains.

Like he said, just like they would eat at home.

We walk past a row of people chopping fresh vegetables and packaging salads in small containers. “This is Bibi, my sister-in-law, who’s in charge of the 25 types of salads and pita sandwiches.” Bibi lets me take her picture but tells me with a laugh to make sure it’s a good shot, for her husband. I immediately sense a friendly, down-to-earth woman when she smiles and tells me the picture is fine.

Lamis comes in every morning from 5 until 11 a.m. to make the hummos and baba, but she’s gone by the time I arrive. I don’t dare ask for their recipe or technique, but I notice big food processors in which she no doubt carefully blends the tasty dips.

So Dreamland really is all in the family, which is clearly important to Akram.

“My wife and I have been married for 46 years—the first and only marriage for both of us.” Their eldest son Walid works in the family business and will take it over some day. “Maybe a year, maybe 15 years,” says Akram, who tells me he’s 70. To me he doesn’t look much over 60.

Since the food they concoct at Dreamland is so wonderful, I ask Akram about the food at their extended family gatherings, which includes more than 30 people from several generations. I envision a feast of savory Lebanese family dishes. “Do you eat these particular foods?”

“Yes, but these are side dishes.” Akram tells me. “Last Sunday we had a family barbeque, with everything on the grill – chicken, lamb. Another main dish we do is roasted chicken filled with rice, meat, spices, and pine nuts.”

This is a family that knows how to eat well. I’m just happy that they make and sell some of their treasured recipes for the rest of us.

Do you have a favorite brand or recipe for hummos? Please chime in with a comment below.

I also invite you to sign up for the Pacific Northwest Seasons email list or subscribe to Pacific Northwest Seasons. Just check for these features in the left margin.

Where to Go
Dreamland’s hummus, baba, and their pita falafel sandwiches are available in most QFC stores in the greater Seattle area as well as at Metropolitan Markets and a couple Thriftway stores. Some stores get shipments twice a week, and others just once a week. The salads, which are sold as self-serve, take-out deli food, can be found around the Puget Sound region at Town and Country Markets (such as in Shoreline and on Bainbridge Island).

Friday, July 22, 2011

Mountains to Sound Greenway: Hiking Cedar Butte

How is it that I’ve been hiking the I-90 corridor between Seattle and Snoqualmie Pass for years and never been up Cedar Butte until today? This is a great little hike!

Maybe it’s because this hike is shorter (about 3 or 4 miles round trip) and not as flashy as nearby Mt. Si and Rattlesnake Ledge with dramatic views or Twin Falls with gorgeous waterfalls. But while this relatively easy hike is one of the least visited in the Mountains to Sound Greenway, it’s not for lack of beauty. And if you’re hiking with small kids or still working your way into decent shape, this is the hike for you.

We were initially heading to Rattlesnake Ledge, but the rain gives us pause. (Yes, while the rest of the U.S. is sweltering with heat, we’re still waiting for our real summer to arrive here in western Washington.) Andy and I are a bit concerned about the slick rocks atop Rattlesnake Ledge with an 8-year-old along today. People have accidentally slipped off the cliffs to their demise up there.

“How about Cedar Butte today?” I suggest when we all meet at the Mercer Island Park-n-Ride. Everyone is game for this switch, especially since the trailhead for Cedar Butte is just 50 yards or so away from the Rattlesnake Ledge parking area.

In a steady summer rain, we set off eastward on the flat, wide Iron Horse Trail for about a half mile until we see the unobtrusive cutoff for Cedar Butte. (Keep your eyes on the right side of the trail for the junction.) Stepping off the Iron Horse Trail and onto Cedar Butte trail is like entering a lush, enchanted forest. Profuse greenery (thimbleberries, ferns, salmonberries, and more) lines the narrow trail as it winds gently upward through the second-growth forest.

For the first half mile or so we pass through mostly deciduous alder forest, but as we climb higher it transitions to more open, mixed conifers. Wisps of Spanish moss (or is it net lichen?) hang from tree branches over a carpet of light green moss that blankets the forest floor.

“Isn’t that a native orchid?” Andy points out a small, off-white, multi- blossomed flower shooting up off a decomposing downed tree trunk. It has that waxy orchid look. What a treat to see! Unfortunately all my shots of this delicate treasure are slightly out of focus. (Since I originally posted this, several naturalists have identified it as a pinesap, monotropa hypopithys, which is not an orchid.)

While most of the hike up to the summit is in forest, at the end of a switchback about a mile up the trail we stop for a peak-a-boo view of Rattlesnake Lake and the ridge beyond. On a misty day like today, the turquoise blue lake looks like a remote mountain lake instead of a heavily used park. I’ve also never seen the lake so full.

Before we know it, we’ve reached the top, where a group of scouts are just starting down (the only other hikers we’ve seen so far). Really it’s just a small clearing in the forest with a panoramic view north up the Middle Fork valley of the Snoqualmie River. I try to ignore I-90 in the foreground, and at least we’re far enough away that traffic noise doesn’t reach here.

“Hey, it’s a hummingbird!” cries Lena. I catch a blur of reddish-brown feathers, a Rufous hummingbird. We watch it darting quickly up towards the treetops and wonder what it’s looking for up here. In retrospect, I realize it's probably dining on the unpleasantly abundant mosquitoes, which are feasting on my exposed hands until I douse them with repellent.

By the time we get back to the Iron Horse Trail junction, the rain has subsided and the slugs have decided it’s a good time to cross the trail. We help a few on their way so they won’t get crushed by bicyclists, including a native banana slug sliming its way across the gravel trail. (If I were a slug, I think the gravel would be unpleasant on my belly.) Lena is scouring the salmonberry shrubs along the trail for ripe berries, which are plentiful and tasty right now.

Just before we load back into the SUV for the ride home, Lena instructs everyone on the proper method for discouraging ‘skeeters from following us into the car. Enjoy the Eebee Geebee!

When You Go
Cedar Butte is about 35 miles east of Seattle in the Cascade foothills. Drive east on I-90 from Seattle, take the 436th exit (Exit 32), and drive south to the end of the road and the Rattlesnake Lake/Cedar River Watershed Visitor Center parking lot. The Iron Horse Trail starts on the far eastern edge of this parking complex. Elevation gain to the top of Cedar Butte is about 900 feet, and the trail has been regraded in the last few years to be much less steep than it used to be. You need a Washington State Discover Pass or Northwest Forest Pass (good for both Oregon and Washington national forests) to park here or you could be fined.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Hood River Valley Weekend Getaway: Fun along the Fruit Loop

Sometimes the perfect summer weekend getaway isn’t about packing in as much as possible— it’s about relaxing with friends and maybe not doing much at all. Sharing home-cooked meals, talking late into the night, sleeping in, sipping tea, and hiking to a beautiful waterfall…can you think of a much better way to reconnect with lifelong girlfriends you haven’t seen in a year or more?

Down on the Farm
For the annual G8 gathering, this year we rent the spacious and comfy farmhouse at Draper Girls Country Farm in Hood River Valley, Oregon, one of the farms on the “Fruit Loop” drive of orchards in the valley. With elegant Mount Hood looming only a couple dozen miles up valley and a cherry orchard just beyond the front lawn, the bucolic locale sets the tone for a wonderful weekend. What sealed the deal and drew us here, though, were the cute little pygmy goats and young lambs frolicking in a pen beside the house.

The eight of us who’ve been friends since junior high (and some as far back as kindergarten) have lots of catching up to do. So we sit outside in colorful lawn chairs talking and laughing, watching the hue of Mount Hood’s glaciers and snowfields change as Friday afternoon turns to evening dusk. When it cools down we move inside.

Hiking to Tamanawas Falls
“Anyone want to join me for a hike?” I ask on Saturday morning. While I love talking with great friends, I get antsy without getting outside and moving all weekend.

This year, for the first time ever (and possibly the last), everyone agrees to go on a hike together. Talkative and friendly farm owner Theresa Draper recommends hiking to Tamanawas Falls on the flank of Mount Hood, about 15 miles up Highway 35 on the Mount Hood Scenic Byway. I hiked here as a teenager, but came from the other side of the mountain.

We stop at the wrong trailhead and hike an extra mile (don’t stop at the trailhead near the Cooper Spur turnoff, go a mile farther up mountain!), but it’s a relatively easy 5-mile roundtrip jaunt through mostly Douglas fir forest along a couple rushing mountain streams. T Falls is a very popular hike, and we pass plenty of people as well as dogs, a deer, and a skittering little gray lizard.

Although it’s not a hot day, the heavy mist roiling up and spilling outward from the base of the waterfall cools us down while we sit and take in the view (and talk, of course). Since the rocky trail gets a bit slick close to the waterfall, we plop down on rocks just outside the damp zone and soak up some sun.

Hood River’s Big City Coffee Houses
While I think it’s healthy to be totally unplugged for a weekend, on Sunday morning I drive a dozen miles down valley to Hood River to check business email because there’s no Wi-Fi at the farmhouse and I don’t get decent cell reception. Compared to the quiet up valley, busy downtown Hood River feels like an overcrowded city. (Personally I think this revitalized orchard town peaked in the 1990s.) I bypass packed and trendy Dog River Coffee and Doppio’s and settle in for tea and a scone with my netbook at less-crowded but long-time local favorite Ground Espresso Bar and Cafe on the eastern edge of downtown.

Fruit Looping
On the way back up valley, I can’t resist stopping at a couple farmstands along the Fruit Loop. When I was a kid, before windsurfers discovered Hood River, this area was all about orchards and fruit. Today smaller local farmers are challenged to stay afloat due to overseas competition that undercuts their prices. A tank top I buy at Cody Orchards in Odell from owner Donna Cody sums it up: "An apple a day allows your farmer to stay."

A few miles farther up Highway 35 towards Mount Hood, I make another stop at Packer Orchards to take pictures of Mount Adams to the north (which is a spectacular climb if you're in good shape). But I’m a sucker for good fruit smoothies, so when I wander inside the farmstand and see milkshakes and smoothies available in a zillion combinations of delicious fruit, I have to get one. My creamy raspberry-Marion berry-peach yogurt smoothie is about the best I’ve ever had. Truly.

Cooking on the Farm
Of course with seven moms and a foodie wannabe like me, the meals and snacks we whip up in the well-stocked kitchen are mostly healthful, occasionally decadent, and very tasty. We had planned to dine out one night at a fancy Hood River restaurant, but it’s so nice up here at Draper Girls farmhouse that we cancel the reservations and eat all our meals around the big farm table.

When we need to supplement, we just walk a few yards over to the Draper Girls’ farmstand to restock. I snag some brilliant green string beans, sweet organic cherries, rosy apricots, and a Walla Walla sweet onion. I make a mental note to buy some of that grass-fed lamb available in the freezer to take home and cook up later.

So this is what makes new memories with old friends. Maybe a bunch of guys would bond over a weekend fishing. But we loved hanging out at the Draper Girls' Country farmhouse so much that we’ve pre-booked a weekend next summer. If you stop by the farmstand and see a bunch of ladies laughing over on the lawn by the farmhouse dressed in oddly eclectic retro clothes, it might just be us.

I hope that you, too, can enjoy time with dear friends in such a lovely place.

When You Go
The Draper Girls Country Farm farmhouse, which is right on Highway 35 just north of the Parkdale turnoff, gets booked well in advance, so book early. The house sleeps eight easily in four bedrooms with queen-sized beds. The sofa in the living room is also comfy for sleeping, as one of my friends can attest. The kitchen is completely stocked with good pots, pans, dishes, knives, and more. There's also a wide-screen TV, but we didn't turn it on all weekend.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Riding the Alaska Marine Highway System: Glaciers, Whales, and New Friends

This is the last of my series of posts from Southeast Alaska, the northern edge of the Northwest Coast.

Rain is pelting the cabin windows and wind whistles at a constant high pitch as the ship rocks gently left and right, churning southward on the white-capped sea. About halfway between Juneau and Haines, steel-gray clouds hang in thick low tufts, obscuring the many spectacular mountains that line the Inside Passage. But every now and then patchy snowfields and glaciers that hug the mountains peek through the clouds.

Humpback whale at one o’clock!” cries the shipboard Tongass National Forest ranger who is giving a short talk here in the fore lounge. I glance over just in time to see a spout burst up out of the water and dissipate, not more than 50 yards off the starboard bow. Next a hulking, shiny dark back breaks the water surface, slowly rolls, and then plunges downward, leaving us with a flick of its wide, split fluke tail just before it disappears.

Welcome to Southeast Alaska’s Marine Highway System.

As I write this, I’m on the third and last leg of my ferry trips here. Today I’m on the 4.5-hour ride from Haines back to Juneau, and the weather is crap. Same for my 4.5-hour ride from Sitka to Juneau last week. But I was lucky to have sun breaks and views of the never-ending peaks and icy blue-white glaciers on the trip north from Juneau to Haines. It was an ahhhhh-some journey.

Up on the upper aft deck, a few hardy souls are camped out and asleep on reclining deck chairs, some headed all the way down to Bellingham, Washington. The ranger tells us that the whales, especially orcas, sometimes like to play in the ship’s wake, so I make occasional trips up there. I feel like I’m intruding on a private community, such is the camaraderie that develops amongst the through traveler campers.

Regardless, it’s easy to make friends on a several-hour ferry ride, when many of us are riding a vacation high. And it’s generally not the cruise ship set on these ferries. Friendly locals mix with those of us traveling from the Lower 48 and beyond. When I get up to use the restroom, I ask the German tourists to my left if they’ll watch my pack. They smile and nod yes. I do the same for them a while later.

On the first leg of my Inside Passage journey, from Sitka to Juneau, I sat beside Mark, a lean, soft-spoken teacher-photographer from California and a local doctor based in Sitka, a marvelous woman and font of information about Sitka and many other things. “Sitka is a very tight community, with lots going on. I love it,” she says.

While ferrying next from Juneau to Haines, I met up with Mark again and added a nice semi-retired couple from Maryland to my temporary band of traveling companions. I felt totally comfortable leaving my netbook and even my purse next to them while I went out on deck to watch the leaping porpoises, blowing whales, and gorgeous scenery. (Okay, I forgot my purse, but of course it was fine.)

When it was time to disembark at Haines and they continued on to Skagway, I actually felt a bit sad that I’ll never see these people again. But I’m happy to have shared a few hours with them, learning a bit of their stories and what brought them here. Here on a ferry boat on the Inside Passage, the adventurous spirit of Alaska infuses us all.

I expected beautiful scenery, but I’m just as pleased that the Alaska Marine Highway System ferries are full of interesting, good people who enrich my experience while I travel in the land of stunning mountains, breaching whales, and soaring eagles.

When You Go
Here’s a schedule and stops for the Alaska Marine Highway System. You can travel all the way from Bellingham up to Skagway, over 3 days, or just hop on and off like I did for shorter jaunts. The food on the ships is so-so, so many bring their own on board. There’s also a cocktail lounge and movie room for those not so concerned with the land and sea scapes.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Good Eats in Haines: Chilkoot River Sockeye and Much More

Although I only spent four days in Haines, Alaska, it was just enough to fall a little bit in love.

No, not with a rugged Alaska man—but with a quirky, friendly community and some amazing meals I had there. You gotta love a small town that has a hammer museum and whose local newspaper chronicles out-of-town visitors. Here’s an excerpt from Chilkat Valley News’ Unduly Noted section:

Pat Annis enjoyed her first visit to Haines since her son, Bill Annis, moved here in 1996.… She had a great time walking around town with Bill, visiting the Eagle Foundation and Alaska Indian Arts, and talking with Fred Shields at his gift shop.

(I’m only slightly disappointed that my visit didn’t make the paper.)

Surrounded by dramatic Inside Passage mountains and set on a long, narrow peninsula between the Chilkoot and Chilkat Inlets (Lynn Canal), Haines retains a more low-key character than Skagway to the north. Unlike Skagway, only one cruise ship a week stops in Haines, so it’s not overrun by tourists. (I don't mean to disparage the economic benefits that cruise ship dollars contribute to these small towns.)

Alaskan cuisine can trend bizarrely unhealthful (nowhere else have I been served a garden burger deep fried), but in Haines I ate some of my best meals ever. And that’s coming from a woman who can remember great meals enjoyed over 20 years ago.

It Doesn’t get Much Fresher Than This
If you don’t fish, or even if you do but don’t live close to a healthy salmon run, how often do you dine on wild salmon caught just a few hours ago?

On a damp, drizzly morning, we head to the forest-fringed, glacier-fed Chilkoot River just outside town. The sockeye are running, and fisherman extraordinaire Ron recently hooked a salmon in the same spot. First timers luck?

“If I don’t catch anything, we’ll pick up some halibut in town for dinner,” says Ron. “But give me about 20 minutes.” Marilyn and I drive a mile upriver (it’s a very short river!) to Chilkoot Lake and watch bald eagles.

An excited Ron greets us when we get back. Amongst the half dozen or more people fishing nearby, he is the only one who caught a 10-pounder within 5 minutes.

Chilled bottles of Alaskan Pale Ale come out of the cooler in the back of the truck, and we celebrate Ron’s catch and tonight’s salmon feast. Which, after being marinated and grilled to perfection, is incredible.

Mosey’s Mexican
Great Mexican fare is not what people usually associate with Alaska, but Mosey’s gets a thumbs up from my Arizona transplant friends. We dine there one evening on colorful fresh tacos, piquant chile verde, and (we all decide is the best) Petersburg shrimp enchiladas.

Views of the fjord and the mountains beyond are superb from the deck of the converted home that houses Mosey’s, but tonight we dine inside because it’s a bit chilly. I’ve noticed that portion sizes here in Alaska are on the large side, even for American standards, so tonight’s dinner spills over into tomorrow’s breakfast with scrambled eggs.

A Haines Institution: Fireweed
Before I headed north to Alaska, a health-conscious former Alaskan (via France) told me I had to eat at Fireweed, famous for its fresh baked pizza and overall healthful fare. So I take his advice and have both a lunch and dinner there.

Inside Fireweed, which is in a former historic Fort Seward building, it’s warm and light with wood-beamed ceilings, strings of white lights, and an open kitchen. While lunch slices of pesto pizza are excellent, my dinner of fresh, succulent grilled halibut on a bun baked onsite with salad greens is the best. When dining in Alaska during fishing season, there’s truly nothing better.

Baked to Perfection: Sarah J’s Shoppe
In search of good tea, we wander into Sarah J’s Shoppe, which just opened about 4 weeks ago—so new that Sarah doesn’t have a website yet. This cute little coffee shop/teahouse/bakery on the edge of Fort Seward and just a few blocks up from the cruise ship dock has wonderful teas and baked goods. And they take requests.

“A customer asked me where the pie was, so I baked this for him,” says Sarah of the beautiful golden-crusted pie stuffed with apples and peaches in the display case.

While I indulge in a fragrant peach green tea and molasses ginger cookie (just the right balance of chewy and crispy), Marilyn gets good coffee and a butterscotch blondie. Despite being a spare and careful eater, I notice that ever-slender Marilyn quickly finishes her baked treat.

I sneak there again early the next morning for more tea and breakfast before catching the ferry back to Juneau. Somehow I walk out with a fresh raspberry-lime muffin, a slice of day-old cranberry caramel cake, and a blondie, none of which make it to Juneau before being consumed.

And a Shout-out
While I spent three perfect nights with my campground host friends Marilyn and Ron at Chilkat State Park, my last night was at the comfy Hotel Halsingland in a converted historic Fort Seward building. A special thanks to Charles, who manages the front desk, for his amiable, friendly service.
Remember Holling, the gentlemanly bartender from the TV show Northern Exposure from the 1990s? This retired anesthesiologist from Houston sounds exactly like Holling (actually actor John Cullum), with the same low-key, affable manner.

When You Go
Just go! Here’s a link of ways to get to Haines. Personally I loved riding the Alaska Marine Highway ferries up and back. I hiked, ate well, and generally relaxed, but there’s much more to explore here in the summer.