Discovering Portland, Oregon and the Willamette Valley

Recently our family visited Portland, Oregon to introduce our two year old daughter to her newly adopted cousins. Our AirBNB was only a few blocks from the famed Portland Saturday Farmer’s Market. Upon stepping into the market, the first stand we visited offered white Oregon truffles, morel mushrooms, large spring porcini mushrooms, and porcini powder that is now a beautiful mushroom salt. When I got home, there were a few morels that I had dried that weren’t as nice looking as the rest of the bunch that also went into the salt, as did the finely chopped ends of the white truffles that we brought home.

We marveled at another purveyor selling foraged fiddlehead ferns and sea beans. The variety of produce was picture perfect and overwhelming, in a way that was different from our favorite St. Paul Farmer’s Market at home. The Pacific Northwest fruit, bread, cheese, charcuterie, homemade pasta, and artisanal liqueurs were also spectacular. Honey Mama’s offered paleo-friendly sweet bars featuring cacao, honey, nut and other natural flavors that were like a much more interesting version of an artisan chocolate bar. We enjoyed a number of samples and took home a few bars, which had to be frozen due to the freshness of the ingredients. The texture was unlike anything I had sampled previously and the flavors of the base ingredients shined.

Our Portland Farmer’s Market provisioning fueled most of the trip. We had two breakfasts of soft scrambled eggs that were no more than a day or two old, complemented by morels and shaved truffles with a sea bean garnish. Farmers market bread, cheese, cherries, and charcuterie stocked our picnic basket for a trip to the rustic Oregon coast where we escaped a very hot Portland summer day. Back at home base, we savored a dinner of fresh pasta with an orgy of mushrooms and other foraged goodies.
Whole animal cooking is important not only to respect the animals we choose to eat but to experience some of the best flavors the animal has to offer.A restaurant trend that I have seen recently (and would love to see more of) is using the parts of fish often reserved for stock, family meal, or the trash. Clyde Common offered “salmon bits”, which consisted of the head & cheek, fin, and the bony part of the belly. Heyday in Minneapolis recently offered a similar dish with Aji that featured collar, crudo made from the belly, and the tail.

As I have observed my favorite chefs over the years, I have learned that my tastes align with those who use restraint in their cooking.  It should be no surprise that my favorite winemakers in the Willamette Valley value restrained and interesting wines over the big and bold wines that are easier to generate big point ratings. The cooler vintages like 2011 and 2007 really begin to shine after a few years in the bottle, and have a muted yet complex body. They will not have the same level of elegance and bold flavor as the 2012s but they may ultimately be more interesting wines. At Stoller, the tasting room team spent a lot of time talking about their wine making process, vintages, future trends, and industry consolidation. Their wines offer very good value for their level of quality. The highs in Portland when we were visiting were over 100 degrees and there is wide concern among winemakers that climate change will result in heavier wines like California, or eventually, shift away from being a world class Pinot Noir production area. This is not weather that the region has planned for, as we experienced in the glass condominium that we rented without air conditioning.

The tasting experience at Elizabeth Chambers featured a vintage utilities building with a beautiful courtyard. My wife and daughter joined for this tasting, and our daughter delighted in the lush courtyard with space to run. We enjoyed their 2012 Freedom Hill Pinot Noir with our Farmer’s Market bounty.

Domaine Serene‘s reservations-required Exquisite Tour and Tasting is not to be missed. A guided behind the scenes tour and tasting of their top wines outlines how they have been a leader in putting Oregon wines on the map, and the quality of some of their lower production wines rivals any Pinot Noir I have tasted. Their owners are native Minnesotans.

Another trend in Portland is urban winemaking using sourced fruit. As much or more of the fruit was coming from Washington’s Walla Walla valley than Oregon’s Willamette Valley, which features a lot of Rhone style grapes. We visited Enso and did a wide tasting. The most interesting wine we had was 100% Counoise. Like Mourvedre, it is a Rhone grape that is blended into Chateauneuf. On its own, this version was like a beautiful Pinot Noir got it on with a funky Loire Cabernet franc, and an interesting and irreverent child emerged.

A few other notable experiences in the region:

IMG_2516The 747 waterslide at the Evergreen Aviation Waterpark, which can and should break up a day of wine tasting. You can also check out the Spruce Goose first hand.

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Multnomah Whiskey Library features over 1,500 bottles of spirits, thoughtful cocktails, and knowledgeable bartenders who will geek out on spirits with you and even suggest a recipe to try at home with a particular spirit. This is technically a members only club but when I was there you could ask if there was room, and Monday’s are open to non-members.

Blue Star for donuts. I don’t get very excited about donuts anymore (when I was a kid there was nothing better), but this was an exception. Their brioche dough based donuts are like nothing else I have tasted.

Our daughter’s favorite experience on a 100 degree day was the splash pad at Director’s Circle park.

The Rouge taproom looked a little corporate as it is a small chain but the 15-20 unique beers on tap, as well as their liquors, offer the chance to taste some interesting combinations that you won’t see elsewhere including a sour brewed from yogurt and a soba beer brewed under the instruction of Chef Morimoto.

You will have to find your own coffee haven. The hipsters have apparently moved past Stumptown, which is still a gold standard for my tastes.

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Hot Smoked Wild Herring

IMG_1786.JPGI love fish. One of my first jobs was at Monahan’s Seafood Market in Ann Arbor, MI when I was 17. My rowing coach worked there and introduced me to the owner, Mike Monahan, who hired me for a summer. This was one of my first experiences understanding how important food is, and that quality really matters. Monahan’s has been open since 1979 and when I was there had fish flown in fresh 6 days a week in the bellies of Northwest Airlines planes from the coasts. The business had this rickety white F150 that transported the fish every day for the 20 mile trip to Detroit Metro Airport. What was amazing is I was trusted to fillet whole fish from day one (these were expensive fish), even though I spent a lot of time cleaning squid, washing the floor, and cleaning out the basement cooler during the week. I learned from a long term employee that ‘if it smells like bleach, it is clean’. Amazingly, 20 years later, some of the guys I worked with are still at Monahan’s.

On the weekends, the shop was extremely busy and anyone working was serving customers. Mike believed that staff needed to know their product to properly serve customers, so he sent us home with fish on a regular basis on the condition we cooked it ourselves and reported back. 10 minutes to the inch. Even though I cook to temperature now I’ll never forget that rule of thumb. When interviewing for a job in college I was advised to never remove my “fishmonger” title from my resume. While it eventually came off I will never forget my fishmonger days and they influenced a lifelong passion.

After moving to the Twin Cities over ten years ago, I found Coastal Seafoods. While I am disappointed that there is very little wild Minnesota fish available in general, sometimes they have whole herring. You can also find whole herring on the North Shore when you are lucky. Hot smoking them is one of my favorite meals, and results in fatty and moderately pungent flavors under a nice crispy skin.

Whole Rainbow Trout are also good and are widely available. Brining with some brown sugar, salt and preserved lemons is optional. An alternative is a rub with large pieces of salt, citrus peel and allspice. You can stuff the fish with aromatics like fennel and tomatoes.  Hot smoke (I use my Big Green Egg) on a warm cedar plank at 275 or 300 until the fish has an internal temperature of about 175. At this point, you could serve and eat whole. Or flake the fish and crisp the skin, contributing to a fantastic salad with a light vinaigrette and a poached egg. This is a meal that is fairly simple and elegant. Oh, the possibilities…..

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The smoke and moderate “fishiness” pairs with a medium bodied red, such as a syrah, or a funky cabernet franc, such as a Chinon from the Loire Valley.