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.

IMG_2566

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.

Foraging for the First Time, Followed by a Forest Dinner

2016 was the year I decided to start foraging beyond my neighborhood. In the past our foraging was limited to plucking lilac from a neighbor’s tree to make the Mother’s Day cocktail. Like many things in life, I was curious but wasn’t sure how to go about it. I started by reading blogs and perusing a few books. After learning that hop shoots are edible, I began foraging two ingredients from my backyard – lilac and hops. Then, serendipity happened. There is a group of people that we get together with every few months for some serious cooking and the May’s proposed dinner menu featured morels. Foraged morels. Collectively, we cut a deal immediately. I would plan and cook a foraged menu after an outing or two during which others in the group would show me the basics of foraging.

IMG_2271.JPG

On a beautiful May Saturday in the southern part of Minnesota that was untouched by the last glacier, I learned to think like a mushroom – dying elms, wet soil, southern exposure due to the time in the season – and we had some luck. Apparently the right soil temperature is in the mid 50s for peak morel growth.

Then we hiked to another spot with perfect fiddleheads and nettles. Then watercress. The friend who taught me the basics also had a spot for ramps and asparagus that we did not have time to visit together but he brought some along for the forest dinner.

IMG_2273.JPG

An important part of foraging is letting nature to continue to do its thing, which requires leaving behind at least half of the fiddleheads and ramps that have grown. Trust me though, we picked every morel we found.

I have been duck hunting a few times and the part of the experience I like the most is being in quiet, beautiful places while looking for the perfect perch. This is often interrupted by loud booms, especially given my aim. So foraging is even better because the forest is inherently quiet.

How did the menu end up?

 

Salad

IMG_2283.JPG

We started with a watercress salad that was garnished with hop shoots from our garden and 12 year Hook’s cheddar. I tried pickling some of the hop shoots and really preferred them fresh. I prepared a buttermilk-based dressing with a balanced Italian olive oil and the watercress leaves that didn’t make the cut for the salad.

IMG_2287.JPG

Main Dish

IMG_2292.JPGFirst I thought about a pasta with a simple and buttery white wine sauce. Would this overpower the morels? A chef friend recommended soft scrambled duck eggs to provide a creamy but non-competitive base for all of our goodies. After consulting the group, we settled on a toned down pasta. I thought about a number of options and landed on a modification of one of my favorite dishes of 2015, mushroom risotto. But I didn’t want to overpower the morels as a part of the risotto. So, instead of a mushroom risotto I decided to do a ramp risotto as the base of the main dish. The bulbs went into the risotto during the cooking process (supplemented with shallots) and then the leaves were chopped and folded in just prior to serving along with the cheese a little butter and a few nettles.  

IMG_2291.JPG

I washed the morels and cleaned the fiddleheads of their papery coating. Next, I cooked both simply in Hope Creamery butter in my grandmother’s cast iron pan (one of my favorite possessions). No garlic, just salt and pepper. I was very careful to make sure that the fiddleheads were al dente for serving and that the morels were still a little firm. Then I briefly cooked the wild asparagus in the butter that had been used for the morels.

The fiddleheads,  morels and wild asparagus went on top of the ramp risotto. Given the theme of the dinner was eating from the forest, most of us complemented the meal with a piece of rare venison.

 

IMG_2296.JPG

Dessert

One of our guests brought homemade rhubarb ice cream, and sugar cookies from Patisserie 46, which was the perfect complement to the meal.

Pairings

We paired a 2012 Hartford Court Seascape Vineyard Pinot Noir with the main course. It was an incredible wine, and had enough body to be beautiful and thought provoking while not overpowering the tastes of the forest.

We also had a few sours from the upcoming Oakhold Farmhouse Brewery. These are something special and worth watching out for as they come on to the market. In the meantime, the talented brewers are collaborating with Fair State on a few beers.