Food Cart Capitol; Off the Carts

This one is for JC, who firmly believes that my all-from-scratch soups are oh-so-good they should be shared with the rest of the world by being readily available on supermarket shelves. My soups even scored number two on her Top Twelve of 2012 list of favorite eats– how humbling. So, naturally, while in Portland I tasted the best soup I’ve ever had, of course I thought of her.

It all started on a Tuesday night when the guinea pig and I went on a dinner date; he suggested to go someplace nice that night, not necessarily fancy but not a stand on the side of the road either. I put on my orange strap wedges and chose the venue: Farm Cafe, which ended up being a block down from our hotel. I made reservations for 7:30 and we were unusually on time. Our hostess was spacey. She wore round spectacles and short pigtailed hair and a blank expression on her face, fitting right in with the Oregon scene. We sat outside under the shelter of an umbrella; you never do know with Portland skies, and ordered  beers. The guinea pig and I both love trying all things local when we travel, especially microbrews. I did find Oregon beers a little too hoppy for my New England taste; their IPAs do not tickle my fancy. Many of our bar adventures did not include vast options of local microbrews on draft, but the Farm Cafe offered a decent variety, and I was able to avoid another hoppy IPA for a dark, heavy stout.

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We were sitting comfortably in our light jackets in the patio with lines of lightbulbs decorating a brick wall and grape vines climbing up the entryway, when our appetizers arrived, baked brie and a bowl of the soup of the day, both to share between the two of us. The guinea pig fell for appearances, diving into the fancy brie, that came hot in a white porcelain boat topped with pine nuts and strawberries that had melted in its own sweetness in the oven. I started the soup, mixing in the black pepper sprinkled on top. Oh that soup. Only inhaling its aroma and warmth was ecstatically satisfying. Beer, cheddar, and leeks. Must I say more? Executed unsurpassably. It couldn’t have been done any better; I doubt it could. It was beautifully smooth, like one of those  Venus commercials where a silk scarf slides off of their recently shaven, perfectly airbrushed legs, but all on my tongue, the background music playing and my taste buds rejoicing.

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We exchanged appetizers. I tried the brie, gooey and warm, sweet from the fresh but baked strawberries, crunchy from the pine nuts, and crispy from the crusty bread. I am a cheese-fanatic. While I have not yet met anybody who does not like melted cheese, I am admittedly a bit of an extreme. So, I surprised myself that although I had no criticism for the baked brie, I wanted the soup back. I thought, it might be my lucky day, since the guinea pig prefers his soup chunky and not blended into baby food, maybe he’ll push the bowl back without my intervention. I’d get what I want and not come off as greedy. Imagine how I felt when I heard him make love to the soup, my soup.

But could I blame him? This was a bowl blended into the perfect consistency of harmonious flavors. The good news is that my last bite, before the entrees were brought out, ended back on the soup: beer, cheddar, and leek. And all’s well that ends well.

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Surely dinner did not end at appetizers. It ended on a sweet note, with dessert. The guinea pig and I couldn’t come to a unanimous decision so we thought to get two and share; one a chocolate molten cake with coffee ice-cream, the guinea pig’s choice, and another a tart rhubarb  crumble with a scoop of cold vanilla bean melting a-top. And these came after entrees, my dijon-spicy eggplant and breadcrumb veggie-burger that came in an almost doughnut-like of a bun, and the guinea pig’s rabbit on spaetzel. Yes everything was delicious; what a wonderful dinner that was. But that soup; I will never forget that soup. If it was not the soup-of-the-day and a permanent menu item, you would have found me skipping out on the food cart scene and at the Farm Cafe every lunch and dinner with a bowl of cheddar, beer, and leek.

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JC, if you find yourself in Portland, (Portland, Oregon obviously), I do hope it’s when the Farm Cafe’s soup of the day is their cheddar, beer, and leek again.


Pizza for a Price

In the midst of cooking a mid-week dinner and upon the Italian guinea pig’s return from the Co-Op food store carrying a brown bag of the missing ingredients, we reached a verdict; pizza Friday night. He carped on how I never told him my corner market carried dough, I declared innocent, as he had never explicitly sought it.

When Friday evening came and our laptop screens hit the keyboards, we roamed the grocery store to see what spoke to us. I was quiet, and took a step back, allowing the Italian to lead the way, which resulted in raddichio, sweet sausage, and a bag of dough. Our last minute arrival at our early closing Upper Valley market, 8 pm the last call, was the reason drapes were already closed over the local and specialty cheese refrigerator, and we were locked out of reach from fresh mozzarella locally kneaded and stretched across the river in Vermont. Having a beautifully aged sharp cheddar at home, we decided a milder cheese would work as a bed to the more powerful purple waxed cheddar, and for that, I thought of the Jarlsberg wedge in my fridge’s cheese drawer (although the letters printed on the drawer spell out MEAT). Little did we then know this $5 worth of Norwegian cultured cheese would cost us more than a Benjamin.

At home, I diced a slice of pork belly we had asked the butcher to wrap up for us on our last super market visit. Our theory was why buy processed bacon when you can have the fat strips shaved fresh on demand.The diced belly went into a dry hot pan, and crisped in it’s own rendering fat. I removed the browned bacon and added an entire sliced onion, that would, with an addition of salt, slowly caramelize  into a sweet, savory, and rich pizza topping- an ideal compliment to the sausage, and a counterbalance to the bitterness of the radicchio. The onions were my only firm contribution to the process- I chose not to embarrass myself or get my nose in a foodie Italian’s business when it comes to pizza and pasta, as he takes two steps back when I, as an Iranian growing up with Persian cuisine, put on a pot of rice. But, I’ll have to at least mumble the fact that, while the guinea pig had his doubts, in the end it was those perfectly pig fat caramelized onions that took things to Utopia. In the meanwhile, the Italian used a cellophane wrapped wine bottle to roll out the dough as he stood over the floured table right outside the kitchen.

He brushed the dough with diced tomatoes and sprinkled with oregano. And when that went into the oven, with the pork belly fat sauteed onions in one pot, the browned sweet sausage in another, the crisped bacon resting on a paper towel, and the radicchio was roughly sliced and diced, time came to grate the cheese, when we realized the cheese had been left not in my fridge, but in the guinea pig’s. I was given directions to watch the dough, as he went back to his apartment, luckily a seven minute drive from mine, to fetch the wedge. It would be okay, the dough needed a head start in cooking- everything else was pre-cooked and only the cheese needed to melt. I grated the half block of cheddar and waited. I waited more than I thought I would; these Italians are always late after all, “on time” translating into a quarter past the negotiated time. I roamed the shelves of the refrigerator and chopped some flat leaf parsley, when I got a text that read, “I’ll be there in 10 minutes. I will explain later.”

The explanation was, while a possible blame on the guinea pig’s Italian-ness, not from an aspect of tardiness, but stereotypical Italian driving. Pulled over for going 70 miles per hour with the speed limit of 35 by the Hanover police- that honestly have nothing to do but give out traffic tickets and issue court summons to underage drinkers of   Dartmouth College’s undergraduate world. The officer mellowed when he heard the reason for speeding, “We have a pizza in the oven and I went to get the cheese,” showing the nibbled wedge of cheese. The officer smiled, and maybe even gave a chuckle, (no one could have come up with a lie like that; it was clearly innocently honest) reducing the fine to $100 from what would have been more, elevating the monetary worth of the half pound of cheese. Jarlsberg is similar to what we plainly call Swiss cheese, the guinea pig and European world know as Emmental, in the sense of appearance, both having holes or eyes, and fat, both on the skim side, which, considering all the animal fat that went into our toppings, extra essential oil was the last thing we needed from a cheese. Alongside a couple of beers, the thin crust layered with tomatoes, topped with sweet caramelized onions, sausage, crisp bacon, still crunchy radicchio, and lots of cheese, garnished with fresh parsley, was worth every penny, maybe one of the best mouthfuls of pizza I’ve experienced.

The lighting and photo does the flavor no justice. I was in too much of a hurry to start devouring to patiently snap a decent depiction

(I’m hoping JarlsbergUSA sends me to EatWriteRetreat, and this post can be my ticket.)