The New Queen City Grill

When I opened Macrina in 1993, Peter Lamb and Robert Eickhof were running Queen City Grill. They put Belltown on the map as a dining destination. Scott Carsberg, chef of Lampreia, followed them in 1992. Peter was good friends with Scott and when I opened Peter would drop by and chat with Scott before picking up bread for the Queen. I used to love going there for great food and that lovely atmosphere. It always was a lively place! I’m so glad Trevor, Brian, and the others were able to keep it alive and are doing so much to make it a vital Seattle destination again. 

Leslie

Long Live the Queen

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When Trevor Greenwood learned that the iconic Queen City Grill was slated to close late last year, he sprang into action. Working feverishly, he pulled together a team who shared his love of the restaurant and inked a deal to save the Queen two days before Christmas and just a week before the doors would have closed forever.

For Greenwood it was personal—he’d started there as a busser and worked his way into management and captaining the wine program. Years later, he founded Cantinetta, the beloved Tuscan-inspired restaurant with locations in Wallingford, Bellevue, and Madison Valley.

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The rejuvenated Queen City Grill reopened in early 2017 after a remodel that updated the interior—touched up varnish, new lighting, paint, and plenty of improved firepower in the kitchen.

“Every restaurant that’s been around a while has to fight to stay relevant,” says Executive Chef Brian Cartenuto. “Queen City Grill opened in 1987. Belltown was very different then. And look at Seattle now. There are 77 cranes up. Lots of newcomers. Enough restaurant openings to make you dizzy. People are intrigued with what’s new.”

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The task of renewal at the Queen is in the able hands of Cartenuto, the original executive chef at Cantinetta. Restaurant critic Providence Cicero, writing of his dishes at Cantinetta, said they “combine a wonderful balance of flavors with an element of surprise.”

At the Queen, Cartenuto honors the refined simplicity and whimsy that made the original Queen City Grill such a sensation. His menu has a Northwest sensibility and features seasonal produce and local purveyors.

“There’s still a burger on the menu,” Cartenuto says. “It’s important to me that the food stays fun and approachable. Through technique, quality of ingredients we try to make the food exciting, food that tells the story of the seasons and that honors our past. For example, we’re putting Miso Salmon on the menu to pay homage to the past. That was probably novel in 1990. But there’s a reason it’s a classic now. And they can be reinvented, made relevant again.”

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Come to think of it, that’s an excellent metaphor for the Queen City Grill—a classic, reinvented and made relevant again.

Brunch is another new feature. Offered on weekends from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. the menu ranges through a few classics like a super custardy French toast with star anise sugar and berry compote, then veers middle-Eastern with Shakshuka, a lovely egg dish with a spiced tomato sauce and grilled flatbread.

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Come visit (or revisit) Queen City Grill, one of the oldest bars standing in Seattle, now tastefully refurbished to preserve all of the romance of the original space and with an exciting new menu that has something for everyone.

Meet Erica Olsen, Macrina’s New Pastry Chef

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Sometimes life travels full circle in the most delightful ways. When I first met Erica Olsen, she was cradled in her mother’s arm at Grand Central Bakery. I worked as the head baker at that time. Erica’s mother worked there too. We were all dusted in flour. That was more than 25 years ago. Now I get to introduce Erica as Macrina’s new pastry chef.

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“No smell reminds me of home more than the yeasty smell of rising bread,” Erica says. “My mom was always baking. I love food, and have been working with food since I was 14, but growing up I never thought I’d be a chef.”

That changed when Erica enrolled in the Seattle Culinary Academy where, amongst others, she trained with Chef Kim Maher, the amazing pastry chef at Super Six, and formerly Macrina’s head pastry chef. (If you haven’t tried Super Six’s Malasadas you’re missing out on one of Seattle’s best pastries.) After Erica graduated, she had the opportunity to work with Kim at Super Six where she refined her skills.

Then earlier this year Erica met Jane Cho, Macrina’s production manager, at a Les Dames D’Escoffier Seattle event (A fabulous organization I’ve been involved with for nearly 25 years) and learned Macrina was searching for a new head pastry chef. Connections were made and soon after Erica impressed Macrina’s entire management team with her passion and skill. That flour-dusted child is now a talented flour-dusted adult and I’m proud to have her on the team.

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Born and raised on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, Erica still lives near to her childhood home on the hill. She and her girlfriend, Rikke, love to take long city walks with Betty, their dog, a charming blend of dachshund, cocker spaniel, and spitz. A favorite summer activity is berry picking. “Especially raspberries,” Erica says. “Blueberries and strawberries are great, but I’ll eat raspberries until I’m sick.” She’s also an active SIFF member and while balancing a busy training schedule managed to squeeze in several films at this year’s festival.

Erica will spend time working with each café’s pastry team. Her day begins early, but she’s often still working the ovens at lunch. You’ll see her back there, kneading dough and pulling trays of steaming Cornetti and Morning Rolls from the oven in the morning, and tarts and cakes in the afternoon. Erica says, “I’ve got big shoes to fill here at Macrina. The pastries are incredible, and the standards are very high. But I work with a great team and have lots of support.”

Please join me in welcoming Erica to Macrina.

Leslie

PCC’s Perfect Blueberries & Macrina’s Coffee Cake

PCC has the best blueberries. They’re as big as the end of your thumb, dusky blue, perfectly sweet-tart, and ready to burst with finger-staining nectar. Called Sweet Baby Blues, they come exclusively from LaPierre Farms in Zillah, Washington.

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To honor the arrival of berry season in the Pacific Northwest, we’ve collaborated with our friends at PCC Markets on a Mini Blueberry Coffee Cake. I’ve made my favorite fresh fruit coffee cake with many types of berries and other fruits, but the juiciness of the blueberries from LaPierre Farms, and their balance of acidity and sweetness, is unique enough that it took several modifications to adjust my recipe. The cinnamon sugar streusel topping complements the tartness of the berries nicely and I find the combination irresistible. The cake will be featured at PCC as well as in our cafés.

We began selling our breads and other baked items at PCC in 2014. “Customers are loving this partnership,” said PCC’s Senior Grocery Merchandiser Scott Owen. “We began selling Macrina breads in King County locations and they sold so well we expanded the products to all of our stores.”

I have great admiration for the dedication PCC has shown toward improving our local food supply. They maintain partnerships with local and regional farmers to provide the best-tasting, freshest produce possible. One way they do this is through the PCC Farmland Trust, which works to protect threatened farmland in Washington. The trust also helps local farmers be productive growing sustainable and organic crops. It was through them that we learned of an excellent wheat grown on PCC Farmland Trust land by Williams Hudson Bay Farm and processed by Fairhaven Mills. We now use the whole grain whole wheat flour in some of our breads.

Wayne and Marni LaPierre are an example of the type of family farm PCC has supported. In 1984, after finishing college with a horticultural degree, Wayne returned to the Yakima Valley where his grandparents had farmed. He planted an orchard of cherry trees and soon after began growing organically. In 1989, PCC began their relationship with LaPierre Farms and each year customers have eagerly awaited the arrival of Wayne and Marni’s fruit throughout the summer.

Just a few years ago, Wayne began growing blueberries. PCC contracted the whole crop.

“LaPierre Farms is a very special farm, with a grower that is seemingly doing the impossible,” Scott said. “He picks, cools, packs, and ships in about 24 hours. Our stores often get them barely a day of the vine. They are amazing in quality, texture, and flavor.”

Aside from great soil conditions and careful watering at night, one key to the great berries is careful handpicking. Blueberries don’t ripen all at once, requiring patience and multiple picks. Wayne trains all of his pickers how to identify berries that are mature. When they’re at their best they come off easily. “We just roll’em off with our fingers,” Wayne said.

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It’s that kind of care, and attention to every detail in the growing process, that distinguishes Sweet Baby Blues. Give the berries a try. I think you’ll understand why they inspired me to create Macrina’s newest product, the Mini Blueberry Coffee Cake. Macrina shares PCC’s value of sourcing the best ingredients from local farms, which makes it an honor and a joy to collaborate with them.

Leslie

Ten Years of Skillet: Evolved Street Food for the Masses

Skillet’s food has a personality and flair that stands out. It’s been that way from the get go. When I think of Skillet, I think of assertive flavors, great recipes, classic culinary techniques applied to innovative spins on American favorites, and a focus on seasonal and local ingredients. Skillet is a beloved Seattle restaurant and I’m proud they’ve chosen Macrina rolls and breads for many of their classic dishes.

Leslie

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In restaurant years, ten makes you a veteran. For Skillet, the ride has been adventurous. Skillet’s wild years began in a renegade Airstream trailer, involved a few skirmishes with a health department unfamiliar with food trucks, and a couple of run-ins with aggressive tow-truck drivers. But ambition, talent, and a few unforgettable dishes have carried Skillet to a successful but never dull maturity.

In 2007, street-food trucks weren’t a phenomenon. You could actually find downtown street corners without one. Beyond taco trucks—fabulous, yes, but one dimensional—there wasn’t much. Then Skillet’s pioneering street-food truck came along. People stood in long lines to eat the Fried Chicken Sammy, the Bacon Jam Burger, Poutine (not at all ubiquitous then), and the Kale Caesar. When discussing local food trucks, it’s fair to divide the conversation into Before Skillet (the dark ages) and After Skillet (the enlightenment).

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Fast forward ten years, Skillet has grown into a Seattle institution. There are four brick and mortar restaurants—Capital Hill, Ballard, Denny Regrade, Seattle Center—and two food trucks. What hasn’t changed is the food. Skillet’s chef-driven take on American-inspired classics has become a brand unto itself. Their greatest hits—the chicken sandwich, the burger, the Caesar, the waffle with braised pork belly, the griddle cakes with compote—couldn’t be pulled from the menu without risking insurrection, maybe a little like a Pearl Jam concert in which the band refused to play “Evenflow.” It’s not that the new stuff isn’t worth trying—it is—it’s just that Seattle fell in love with Skillet’s classics first and won’t let go. And that’s just fine with Skillet. They continue to source great local food, fix it up, and serve their favorite dishes to customers, many of them long-time devotees.

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The diners are spacious, light and airy, with a menu that expands upon the original food truck menu. To celebrate their tenth anniversary, Skillet is featuring a throwback menu all year that features recipes culled from old newsletters. March features the Lemongrass Pork Sammy with pickled ginger slaw. April features the Porchetta Sammy with hazelnut gremolata.

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That catering plays a role in Skillet’s middle-aged evolution should come as no surprise. Skillet’s burgers, fries, and milkshakes were first introduced at founder Josh Henderson’s wedding. Now, with a team of over 100 talented people, Skillet can cater up to six simultaneous events. Hundreds of brides and grooms have chosen Skillet to cater their weddings.

Catering Manager, Jessica Paul Jones, says that in addition to weddings, private parties and corporate events make up the bulk of their catering. But they can handle just about anything in Pacific Northwest. They’ve even have a china box that can roast a whole pig. One memorable catering event was a party at the top of the Smith Tower. Jessica remembers carrying food and equipment up the stairs (“My legs hurt for days”). Then there was the one at a ‘huuuuge” house in Laurelhurst that sat above the lake with 103 slate steps winding down to the lakeside tables (“My legs hurt even worse”).

When major life events occur, some Skillet fans rely upon their favorite restaurant. One such customer is Brian Benjamin, a weekly food truck regular since 2009. His go-to item is the Fried Chicken Sammy. His parents met his fiancé’s parents for the first time at the Skillet restaurant in Ballard. And guess who’s catering their wedding?

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Brian Benjamin

In a world of coincidences, one that isn’t all that surprising is that Brian is also a Macrina fan. He explains, “My fiancé, Jilian, used to live right behind the Macrina Bakery on Queen Anne. I always loved waking up on a weekend morning to walk over to get a ham and cheese brioche or Morning Glory muffin. We still swing by from time to time to pick up a loaf of rosemary semolina bread. I’m often more excited to eat the bread than I am the rest of the meal.”

Maybe that isn’t such a coincidence after all since Macrina’s potato roll has long been an essential part of Skillet’s Fried Chicken Sammy. At Macrina, we’re proud to be a part of one of Seattle’s favorite sandwiches.

What’s next for Skillet? Ani Pendergast, Skillet’s Director of Marketing, says, “Our focus is on maintaining the same kind of consistency we’ve always had. We’d love to open more neighborhood restaurants. But first we have to feel that we have the capacity to do it, then we need to find the right location. Our primary focus has always been on the food and the service. Whether you hit the restaurants, the trucks, or catering we want to be sure you get Skillet food and Skillet service. So we don’t spread ourselves too thin, we’ll only grow when we’re ready for it.”

Azeite Esplendido: Gold-Medal Winning Olive Oil from Portugal

“There are many good olive oils out there, but few that are exceptional, especially at a reasonable price. I tried Azeite Esplendido at the Fancy Food Show earlier this year and was blown away. Sheila Fitzgerald, the importer, impressed me with her passion and knowledge for all things olive oil, from its health benefits to the advantages of small-scale artisanal production. I love the balance this oil has. It’s assertive, with that great peppery spice, not bitter, and low in acidity. I am proud to add Azeite Esplendido to the small curated line of products we carry at Macrina.” 

Leslie

Azeite Esplendido: Gold-Medal Winning Olive Oil from Portugal

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A great extra virgin olive oil is as different from the typical pale yellow stuff sold in supermarkets as pure maple syrup is from Aunt Jemima’s. Good olive oil is alive and peppery, not bitter, and taken straight can make you cough. If you’re accustomed to bland commodity olive oil one spoonful of the real thing will transport you to another gustatory plane where flavor defies known parameters.

That’s sort of what happened when Seattle resident Sheila Fitzgerald was hiking through northern Portugal en route to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela in 2012. In the high hills above the Douro Valley, a soaring majestic patchwork of cultivated agriculture and natural, craggy slopes, she found herself in a grove of olive trees. Some had massive trunks, their limbs twisted and magnificent with age. She introduced herself to the property owner, Henrique Cardoso, a fourth-generation farmer, who then introduced her to his olive oil.

fullsizeoutput_3e9a “I knew good olive oil, but I’d never tasted anything like his,” Sheila says. “The golden-green oil had a peppery spiciness to it, no bitterness, and a complexity and balance that I’d never experienced.”

That revelatory moment kicked off Sheila’s four-year journey to become the sole US importer of Henrique’s olive oil. The first challenge was winning Henrique’s trust, persuading him that she would uphold his fierce commitment to quality. Next came an extended process of gaining FDA approval, an involved study of the existing US market, selecting bottles, and designing a label.

Since that first visit, Sheila has been back many times, including at harvest time, which starts in November and goes through January.

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“Henrique picks his olives early and makes Azeite Esplendido from the first harvest,” Sheila says. “That means the olive is picked when they’re very green. Most farmers wait until the olives get plumper. That way they get more oil out of it. But the olive loses flavor as it ripens. My oil has a peppery spiciness to it. That’s indicative of an early harvest. It can bring tears to your eyes, even make you cough. That’s a good thing.”

Harvest is a time of celebration. An autumnal chill in the air, the groves often laced with tendrils of fog, pickers go from tree to tree using long rakes to pull the olives into nets. An old tractor hauls them to the press, no longer one of the picturesque stone mills, but a state-of-the-art stainless steel centrifuge.

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“The olives are washed then ground into a mash before they’re dumped into the centrifuge,” Sheila says. “Henrique continually adjusts the revolutions per second, which changes the oil. He’s always testing it.”

Before the bottling, which is done within twelve hours of pressing, comes the blending. Azeite Esplendido is composed of first cold-pressed oil from four types of olives: Transmontona Verdeal, Cobrançosa, Cordovil, and Madural.

Sheila says, “Henrique guards the percentage of each olive in the blend. It’s the secret to his recipe. Along with picking at the right time, carefully monitoring of the oil extraction, and cultivating the best trees.”

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The Tras-os-Montes region, where the farm is located, is one of the six protected designation of origin (DOP) zones in Portugal. The microclimate and soil make it an ideal place for olive trees. On Henrique’s farm, the trees are widely spaced to allow each tree plenty of sun and wind and rain. Some of the trees are five to six hundred years old. These are called the mother trees. Around their base workers mound extra dirt. When new shoots come up they are transplanted, hence the name mother tree. The trees are not irrigated.

Sheila says, “Henrique told me doesn’t want to babysit his trees. It’s survival of the fittest. If it can’t grow there, he doesn’t want it.”

While Italy’s olive trees suffered through a terrible year in 2016 that halved production, Henrique’s groves fared well.

“Olive oil is a live product. It changes over time,” Sheila says. “It’s dependent on fluctuations in the weather. The new harvest is so bright green. Henrique tasted the oil at bottling and said, ‘My olive oil is so good this year we’re gonna blow the dishes off the wall.’ It wasn’t a translation issue. That’s his expression. No one makes olive oil like he does.”

Last April, at the New York International Olive Oil Competition, 827 olive oil entries from 26 countries were judged. Azeite Espledido took home the top honor, a gold medal.

Macrina is proud to carry this fine olive oil. Buy a bottle and a loaf of your favorite crusty bread, puddle a bit of oil on a plate and dip. Will it blow the dishes off the wall? Probably not. But it just might blow you away.

Green Tables

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Green Tables

Les Dames D’Escoffier Seattle is an organization near and dear to my heart. Being a Dame for nearly 25 years has been an important part of my life and career success. Early in my career I benefitted greatly from key mentoring relationships and support. Les Dames gives me a chance to pay it forward, to help other young women find the same opportunities. Les Dames raises money and awareness to inspire and aid women in finding rewarding careers in the hospitality industry. We offer scholarships, funds for continuing education, and help create opportunities through our experience and network of established relationships.

A major focus of ours is Green Tables, a Les Dames chapter initiative which supports education on all aspects of growing, sourcing and preparing nutritious food. We hold a series of fundraisers throughout the year and we have one coming up. Tag and Table is this Sunday, September 18th, on Capitol Hill. It will be a great opportunity to find fantastic kitchen tools, have some fun doing it, enjoy food and wine while you shop, and know that your support of Green Tables is making a difference in women’s lives and the health of our city’s food supply.

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One recent recipient of a Les Dames’ grant is Seed to Table, an edible education program for youth located in Olympia. We awarded them a $3,500 grant to help fund staff support and materials for their Preschool Garden Time program, spring field trips, and summer camp. They offer free, weekly Preschool Garden Time in the spring, garden field trips for preschool and grade school groups, and a summer camp for children ages 6-12.  The goal of this programming is to connect children with their food, by teaching them how to grow and cook their own delicious and nutritious meals.

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Program Director Karen Ray says, “Between April and June, we served over 460 people, including over 260 children, at our weekly Preschool Garden Times and class field trips.  These programs were free to the community, and all funding support was provided by Les Dames. Children dissected bean seeds to see how they grow, and then planted beans in the garden. They strung twine on pea trellises and watched the peas grow from week to week. They discovered spittle bugs hiding in the herb garden, and ladybugs eating aphids on the rose bushes. Children also learned how flowers get pollinated and turn into fruits and seeds. And throughout the spring, children harvested and ate from the garden–peas, carrots, broccoli, radishes, cherries, and strawberries.”

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Another recent recipient is Southwest Early Learning Bilingual Preschool. Director Karina Rojas Rodriguez says, “We are a non-profit bilingual preschool in the heart of West Seattle serving a wide range of ethnic, cultural and linguistic children. Many of our children do not have the experience of growing their own garden or attending amazing field trips like the pumpkin patch. With the Green Tables grant we are able to maintain our very own garden here on Delridge, rent a school bus to transport 130 children to and from the pumpkin patch, and most importantly continue to serve organic and farm to table meals to our children. We appreciate everything they have done for us and continue to do for us.”

Green Tables has awarded over $64,000 since it’s first grant awards in 2011, helping bring healthy meals to schools and early education supporting the garden-to-table cycle, and supporting sustainable farming practices that provide organic and sustainable foods to our community. Drop in on Sunday to learn more about who we are, meet some of the women who have worked hard to make this organization a success, buy something for your kitchen, and help us make a difference.

Thank you for your support.

Leslie

The Buzz on (Really) Local Honey

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On my Vashon Island farm, I have plenty of space for my gardens and chickens. But the current trend in urban farming blurs the old line between city and country. Farming used to be something that took place outside of town. Nowadays, many Seattle homes have parking strip planter boxes overflowing with beans, zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, corn, and much more. Composting boxes overflow. Chickens cluck proudly in backyards, supermarket eggs are no match to their prize offerings. So it’s no surprise that urban bees should follow. That urban produce needs to be cross-pollinated somehow.

Corky Luster started Ballard Bee Company out of his Ballard garage. He’s the Steve Jobs of local honey, the godfather of the urban hive. Turns out it takes more than just plonking a couple of hives in your yard. You need to know how to manage the colony.

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(Photo: Seattle Tilth)

Corky’s love for beekeeping began in college when a German roommate started a couple of hives in their backyard. While working as a designer and contractor building homes in Seattle, he started raising bees in Ballard. City ordinance only allows up to four hives on lots less than 10,000 feet. So Corky began recruiting others to host hives. He manages them; the homeowner gets a dividend of honey and the knowledge that they’re helping our local ecosystem. The hive takes up little space, but its impact is large. Corky combats disease-and-mites by using integrated pest management principles and avoids harsh pesticides, such as acaricides, in his efforts to keep the hives healthy and happy. The city, surprisingly, turns out to be a great place to produce honey since urban trees and gardens tend to be free of industrial agricultural pesticides. With a surplus of fantastic honey, Corky bottled it and began to sell it through a few local stores in 2010.

Renee Erickson, chef of Ballard’s The Walrus and The Carpenter and Fremont’s The Whale Wins, has Corky manage hives for her restaurants. Corky’s cult status in the beekeeping world has also allowed him to partner with Seattle Tilth to teach classes on building and maintaining healthy hives.

At Macrina, I’ve always tried to carry a few locally produced items that complement our breads—it’s hard to find anything more local than Ballard Bee Company’s honey. The flavor is delicate and floral, with just a hint of lemon in the aftertaste. With Seattle’s explosion of urban farming, there are plenty of flowering trees, flowers, and gardens. Plus all those wild blackberries. So the bees do their important work, Corky’s careful attention keeps their hives healthy and we get to offer this beautiful honey. Everybody wins!

Leslie

Summer Larder Series (Part 2) / Bucatini Pasta with Roasted Tomato Sauce

Bucatini Pasta with Roasted Tomato Sauce and Stecca Garlic Bread Recipe

In the introduction to my last video, I talked about the value of a larder stocked with the jams and sauces made with the surplus of fruits and vegetables from the summer harvest. The small investment of time spent cooking and preserving the best of summer allows you to enjoy its riches all year. And when you’re entertaining, a well-stocked larder makes it that much easier to kick out something spectacular or a quick and easy dinner during the work week.

Spring plant sales are a vice of mine. I imagine my garden overflowing with zucchini, snap peas, green beans, peppers, lettuce, and much more. Especially tomatoes. Given the unreliability and streakiness of hot summer weather in the Pacific Northwest, I plant lots of tomato varieties, never knowing which will thrive best. I plant sweet cherry tomatoes for fresh eating, Brandywine, Juliette, and Tiger Stripe for bruschetta and fresh sauces. Inevitably I wind up with baskets of lovely, ripe tomatoes far in excess of what my tomato-loving family can eat. What to do? Roasted tomato sauce. My baskets of surplus tomatoes go into the oven with olive oil and garlic to roast. I puree them with fresh basil before sealing them in jars and storing them in my larder.

In the seasons that follow, invariably those jars of summer goodness become the heart of flavorful pastas on busy nights. To me, a good roasted tomato sauce calls for garlic bread. Our new Stecca bread is ideal for this. Stecca, a soft “sweet” (meaning not sour) baguette, is made with our yeast-risen ciabatta dough. It has a light, golden crust and a well-aerated irregular crumb structure. In this video, I transform it into an excellent garlic and cheese-topped dipping bread, a great accompaniment to bucatini pasta with roasted tomato sauce. Together they make a simple, soul-satisfying meal that you can throw together in less than half an hour.

Italian Bread Traditions

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In Italy, there is a saying Senza il pane tutto diventa orfano, without bread everyone is an orphan. Such is the role of bread in Italian daily life. It has a presence at every meal. Its importance, not just to Italian cuisine but to Italian culture, can hardly be overstated.

I have always had a reverence for bread. Many years ago, dining with friends, I discovered just how reverent Italian traditions are when one in our party inadvertently set a wedge of bread on the table crust side down. My Italian friend immediately turned the bread over, right side up, and crossed himself. Apparently this could bring about bad luck, not just for my friend but for the whole table. The superstition seems to be based on the religious fact that bread is considered a symbol of life. Turning it over is considered disrespectful. Bread is a staple of life. One must not risk cursing the supply.

pane-forno-legna-7-620x400Carol Field, the author of The Italian Baker  writes, “Bread is merely flour, water, yeast, and salt as the world is merely earth, water, fire, and air. These four elemental ingredients—grain from the fields, water from rivers and mountain streams, leavening from the wild yeasts of the air, and salt from the sea—have been combined since Roman days to make the breads of Italy.”

The history of the people on the sunny Italian peninsula has been a combative one, with small city states battling one another. Pride in local traditions is fierce. Only in the last 150 years did Italy become a unified country. Even today, regional differences are surprisingly large. Towns situated just kilometers apart have unique dialects, customs, and, yes, even breads. But bread they have. All of them.
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Bread consumption in Italy is higher than any other European country. Most loaves are made by artisan bakers, working on a small scale and heavily influenced by family and regional traditions. Secrets and techniques have been handed down from baker to baker over the years. Even in a metropolitan city like Rome, one finds many varieties of bread. Years ago, while dining there, I discovered a remarkable bread. It’s crust ranged from caramel to almost black; the crumb had a beautifully irregular texture, and the flavor was highly developed. I had to know who had made the bread. With the address in hand for Panficio Arnesse Giuseppe, I wandered the winding streets of the Trastevere neighborhood until I finally tracked down the baker of this bread. Giuseppe was seated in front of his warm oven, reading a newspaper. Amiable and chatty, he was happy to share. He showed me his wood-burning oven, fueled by hazelnut shells. His dough was made simply, without any refrigeration. Starters were developed in his mixers and held there for the next day. We talked for hours. His bread is the inspiration for my Giuseppe loaf.

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Matt Galvin, one of my partners at Macrina, visiting Giuseppe at Panficio Arnesse

I visited a great many bakeries, tasting more than 100 loaves. In Florence and throughout Tuscany the large, thick-crusted oval loaves are made without salt. Some say it’s because a heavy tax was levied on salt in the Middle Ages, and Tuscan bakers decided to go without. Others say the strong flavors of the local cuisine find a better balance in bread without salt. The bread takes some getting used to, but with a slice of salty typical Tuscan salami, like soppressata, I found it excellent.

Down south, on the heel of the Italian boot, Puglia is one of my favorite regions for bread. Their loaves bear influences of the Turks who long ago occupied the region. My favorite has a crunchy crust, irregular crumb, and a flavorful, chewy interior that tastes of the fragrant wheat they use. Local lore is that anyone who wastes any crumbs of this loaf will be doomed to purgatory for as many years as crumbs spilled.

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Wheat field in Puglia

Throughout much of recorded history on the peninsula, bread has been so fundamental to well-being that prices have been regulated by the locality. A fair price for bread—the staff of life—provided sustenance for all. When bread could not be obtained at a fair price, revolution or famine usually followed. Given the central role bread holds in Italian cuisine, and has since Roman times, the almost sacramental reverence it receives is no surprise. Not only has it provided daily sustenance, but its social role—breaking bread with others—is central to Italian life.

In hill towns, small protected valleys, walled cities, and dense neighborhoods, artisan bakers have nourished their communities with the work of their hands, feeding cherished natural starters, kneading and letting their dough rise, stoking the fires in their ovens, and baking traditional loaves, day in and day out. I am honored to have had the opportunity to learn from and to follow their rich tradition.

Leslie

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Ricotta Stuffed French Toast With Plum Paste From Leslie’s Larder

Ricotta Stuffed French Toast and Plum Paste Recipes

Larder is a little-used term these days, but most houses built in pre-refrigeration days had one. Usually built on the north side of the house, close to the ground with a mesh window to allow air to circulate, larders were food storehouses. Because they weren’t cold like a refrigerator, much of the summer harvest was cooked and stored in sealed jars, along with root vegetables and grains.

With freezers and refrigerators, it sometimes seems that food changed from something we make to something we buy. We lost something essential in the transition. Growing up in Portland, I helped my mother preserve buckets of berries and boxes of vegetables she’d buy from local farmers. With the larder full of our favorite jams and condiments we didn’t suffer the winter scarcity of flavorful fruits and vegetables.

Today, there is a renewed interest in maintaining a closer connection to the land. The popularity of farmers markets perhaps indicates an interest in cooking from scratch. The small investment of time spent cooking and preserving the best of summer will allow you to enjoy its riches all year. And when you’re entertaining, a well-stocked larder makes it that much easier to kick out something spectacular.

Each spring I lay out my garden, thinking both of what I love to eat fresh and the things I want to preserve in my larder. I turn a good portion of the summer’s bounty of fruits, vegetables, and herbs into jams, roasted pasta sauces, and fruit spreads. These get stored in sealed mason jars in my larder.

On my farm I have one very productive plum tree. I have made barbecue sauces, plum chutneys, brandied plums, and a series of plum pastes. But my favorite is the plum paste with rosemary. Opening a jar of this any time of year brings summer right back. The Ricotta Stuffed French Toast I make in this video is stuffed with sweetened ricotta and topped with this lovely paste.

The joy of pulling something from my larder and dressing up dishes with wonderful condiments made from my garden connects me to a special part of my childhood in Portland: The simple enjoyment of the sweet flavors of summer and treasured memories of making jams and pies with my mother.

Leslie