For those of you who know my past history with food and cooking, you’ll know of my late-ish start at the ripe old age of 25. Before cooking, there was canned soup, preferably Chunky beef stew. And before that, I survived on falafel sandwiches from the deli, cheeseburgers, Harvey’s poutine because, yes, I’m Canadian, and that’s how we roll with fast food in high school.

But in my 20s, things magically changed. I picked up a chef’s knife for the first time and learned to wield my way through pounds of onions, mountains of garlic, and bushels of tomatoes.

My first few meals felt like a Herculean accomplishment. I’ll never forget the first Pad Thai that I made at my Dad’s house, mounded on a platter, decorated with cilantro and quartered limes. The creamy soup that I couldn’t wait to serve my first ever dinner guests. The mortification over missing the directions to take the soup off the heat before adding the dairy…rendering my velvet beast into a curdled nightmare, more reminiscent of Chinese egg drop soup than anything vaguely Italian-ish.

And I will never, ever forget that first risotto, my first real accomplishment in the kitchen. The smell of the white wine hitting the pan to deglaze the sweet onions. The homemade stock, ladled into the pan one loving spoonful at a time. Making risotto always transported me into my grandmother’s kitchen. Such a cliché admission these days, the reminiscing about kitchens that once were. The domain of family matriarchs whose immigrant kitchens spawned earnest food from the homeland.

But it’s truth, plain and simple. My Nana ran that oregano-infused kitchen with an iron fist. And she loved risotto. Her house smelled like risotto. And though she never got to see me cook, or learn of my passion for food, I always feel as though I’m channeling her spirit when I stand at the stove and stir. And stir. I sip wine and I stir.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a dinner hosted by the feedfeed and Austerity Wines. Austerity had co-hosted an event in New York in the spring of ’17 and I’d remember getting pleasantly buzzed off of their velvety Cabarnet and a spicy Pinot Noir. This year I was game to try their wines again and was amped to start off the evening with sangria featuring their bright and tropical fruit-forward Chardonnay.

The dinner was effortlessly chic, cooked by chef Michael Chernow of Seamore’s restaurants in New York City. Winemaker Steven DeCosta spoke to us about Austerity’s production process and growing conditions for all of those lip-smacking grapes. Austerity’s Chardonnay comes from Monterey County’s Salinas Valley with its cool winds and warm midday sun, ideal growing conditions we learned. And as I teetered home after clinking glasses with some of my favorite NY cooks ), I started to brainstorm ideas for eating and pairing these jewels of the California wine country.

Starting with their Chardonnay- a bright and mineral flavor, perfectly paired with any spring meal. I confess that Chardonnay isn’t always my first choice when it comes to white wine – I find that an overly oaky taste is too much for my palate and tend to stick to grassier numbers – new world Sauvignon Blancs or a dry Pinot Gris. But I can enthusiastically get behind Austerity’s Chardonnay, smooth and buttery and with only a light oak flavor since much of the fermentation process happens in steel casks. It’s so enjoyable as a crisp drinking wine, that I almost considered not cooking with it and saving it for our Greenwood Lake sunset viewing sessions.

Almost.

Risotto was on my mind, as per usual. And just a splash of Chardonnay goes a long way to infuse the rice with a fruit-forward flavor, leaving the rest for me and my stirring/drinking habit.

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It was Monday September 19, 2016 and I’d flown back from Portland, Oregon the previous day, exhausted, sick of food, happy.

I’d just spent 4 days drinking and eating my way through the Feast Portland food festival, stopping for a breather on Saturday because my body, I’d realized, could no longer handle mass volumes of pork belly and Oregon pinot.

Still a fan of Snapchat at the time, I’d video scanned my itinerary into the app as I walked through my plans for each of my 4 days in Portland. Sandwich Invitational, drink tank, another drink tank, Grand Tasting, Night Market, yet another drink tank, Smoked, Brunch Village. It was paradise for the lush and the lover of food.

After touching down at New York’s JFK airport, I filed a mental note to return to Feast the following year.

By winter I was feeling a stronger Portland itch and started to look into plans for Feast Portland 2017. I sketched out a list of Airbnb properties where I could stay and live more locally, outside of the downtown area known for its shopping, restaurants and high rise hotels. I was struck by a number of consistencies: craftsman houses, white furnishings, modern lighting, Pendleton blankets, houseplants. I could get behind this for a few days.

Fast forward a few more months and I received an email from Feast Portland’s organizers – would I be interested in cooking at Feast this year?

If there’s ever been a “hallelujah, I’ve arrived” moment in my stop-and-go food career, this would be it. Although I’ll never cop to jumping and fist pumping, a fly on the wall might have seen it.

I’d be cooking alongside three other women whom I’d long admired – Eva Kosmas Flores from Adventures in Cooking, Ashley Alexander from Gather and Feast, and Joy the Baker. The plan was to host a dinner for 60 on Sauvie Island, outdoors in the elements with a fleet of volunteers ready to help us plate, serve, and help make our evening spectacular.

Gilding the Feast Portland lily even further, Travel Oregon invited me to join several other media professionals on a pre-Feast 3-day trip down the Oregon Coast for a tour of Oregon’s notable hotels and restaurants and while in transit, stop to catch sight of the state’s rugged coastline and wildlife.

On September 11, 2017, after a hasty airport terminal re-packing of my entire suitcase to make sure that I didn’t exceed Delta’s second overage fee for bags over 70 lbs, I headed west, touching down in Portland just after noon. First stop, the Dossier hotel located in downtown Portland.

My itinerary for the week was mighty – a quick unpack at the Dossier, then off to transport my kitchen gear to the newly renovated cooking studio and event space “Tendue” from the team at Secret Supper

From there I’d hit up Jacobsen Salt Co. for some kosher and finishing salts for our event. Somehow my buddy Ben suckered me into running a 6K Healthyish fun run on Friday morning, the night after our first Feast event. (Post mortem analysis of the fun run would later indicate that 1. Hangover runs are not fun, and 2. I’m possibly the most competitive person north of the equator, turning our group jog into a single-person Olympic time trial, also not fun.) 

Next I’d meet up with my friend Zeph from Proletariat Butchery for barrel-aged negronis mixed by fellow Traeger Grills pro team member Jeffrey Morgenthaler at Clyde Common; drive to dinner for shaved ham, handmade pasta & meatballs and the infamous cavolo nero salad at local Portland favorite Ava Gene’s. We’d finish the night with beer and coconut ice cream on the rooftop bar at Departure Lounge run by Top Chef runner up Gregory Gourdet. 

And this was just Monday. None of this comprised even a single sentence in the knee-deep itinerary sent to me, in app form no less!, by my friends at Travel Oregon.

I figured that in order to fit this trip into a digestible single-serve blog post that it might be prudent to create a photo journal of sorts. Yes there were stories. Of whales and wolves, and of chefs in Harry Potter outfits. There were friendships formed, hazelnut beers consumed, sunrises watched, forests hiked. I might have used my Feast media pass to sneak into a country music concert. I’m quite certain that I ate my weight in gluten. I definitely chugged a full glass of champagne from a chambong at the Bon Appétit after party, which caused me to (classily of course) lose my footing and topple off a 4-foot wall into a crowd of horrified bystanders. (Note, I’m still not sure if I’m invited back next year or if I earned MVP status that night, Feast Portland organizers, please weigh in.) 

But perhaps these details are better conserved as the lore of Feast. That dreamy destination where no set of words can accurately describe the sprightly conversations, the extended bellies and unbuttoned jeans, the whiskey-inflected off-kilter balance and in some cases, the majestic set of purple thigh bruises that result when food and drink and friendship are combined in awe-inspiring doses.

It’s an experience. One that I hope that I’ll be a part of again and again. 

And now friends, some photographs.

The Dossier Hotel, downtown Portland

 

Wolves & People farmhouse brewery, Willamette Valley wine country

 

Lunch at Valley Commissary, McMinnville

 

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“Oh hey!”

I looked up from my cart and saw, horrifyingly, that it was one of the baristas from my favorite grocery store in the city, Foragers Market. By my reaction, one might have implied that I was caught strolling out of our neighborhood porn shop with a black plastic bag in my hand. My jaw dropped, face flushed.

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It’s not that she isn’t lovely. She is. We chat in the mornings, we comment on each other’s hair. “It looks lighter! I like it!”

In any other situation, I would have been delighted to see her. But not here. Not at the mass market grocery store that’s right beside Foragers Market.

At home, I disparage this retailer and take every opportunity to avoid it. I hate the fluorescent lighting, the clinical smell, the cheese fridge…so close to the household products aisle that your $10 wedge of Gruyere tastes faintly of Clorox.

Never mind the bloated out-of-season vegetables, straight from GMO farmland. “They don’t care about the food Rodney! Please don’t shop there!”

And here I was. Busted. With a big old pile of industrial corn.

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This was very off-brand. Gene Simmons in a three-piece-suit off-brand.

I love Foragers Market. But when it comes to large volume foods with expensive ingredients, I’ve been known to wimp out. Under the veil of daybreak, I’ll slink next door and toss vats of ricotta and conventional veggies into my cart.

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It’s a momentary breakdown that happens every few months. I might as well confess my sins before another person spies me in Aisle 3, hunting for tomato paste.

My strong preference is to pay up for quality ingredients, but sometimes, particularly when I’m testing a new recipe for the kids, I can’t bear the rejection of a pricey meal. Small-batch ricotta made by hand on an organic dairy farm upstate; the season’s most tender baby zucchini, now in the early stages of harvest. “It’ll all be cooked within an inch of its death!” the voice rings in my head.

I squeaked out my justification: “I didn’t want to make a $30 lasagna for the kids. In case they don’t like it. Please….don’t tell anyone that you saw me here.”

My friendly barista told me that my secret was safe with her. “I do it too” she said as she nodded at her container of broccoli salad.

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4 days and 600 miles through New Mexico in a cherry red VW Beetle. From Santa Fe, the highest state capital in the United States, to the untouched wilderness of the Gila National Forest…all the way down to Silver City, first stop on the Continental Divide trail. A night in Truth or Consequences with a dip in the natural hot springs, an afternoon at Ladder Ranch and at long last, a return trip to Albuquerque for a well-earned Cinco de Mayo party. I brought my Mum along for the ride; a pre-Mother’s day trip that we’ll never forget. Today, and in two more upcoming posts, I’ll share our stories from the road.

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We were invited to visit New Mexico as part of a food tour that brought me together with some of my peers in the food blogging world. I asked my Mum if she’d like to join and she answered a resounding “yes!” before we knew the itinerary; before we learned, for instance, that we’d be trekking through mountains and valleys and desert and rain in a car that could fit inside of our family’s SUV.

Living in New York City means that I’m not much of a driver, and when I do drive to our lake house, it’s an hour door-to-door; nothing like the open road in New Mexico where mirages form and tumbleweeds blow.

This trip – never mind the meals we’d tackle, booze we’d guzzle, hills we’d hike, and art we’d view – would be a navigational feat in and of itself.

But we had the right ingredients: enthusiasm and a sense of adventure.

We drove long hours, passing a changing landscape, each view more beautiful than the last. We met restauranteurs, chefs, winemakers, distillers, tour guides, biochemists, and hoteliers. We learned their stories and marveled at the deeply-rooted history that so defines this region.

Two kinds of people live in New Mexico – those who are born there, and those who visit and never leave.

The state is filled with transplants – people who came in search of solitude, beauty, inspiration, and the great outdoors. Others came by accident but never looked back.

“Don’t ask me how I ended up here”, we often heard.

“It’s a long story.”

There were tales of ex-lovers, work assignments, destiny and fate.

“I feel more at home here than I did in Florida…Arizona…Texas…Ohio.”

It’s easy to understand – after just four days, I felt a similar pull. The food was surprisingly sophisticated – from the nuanced molé that we ate at the Santa Fe School of Cooking, to the bubbling dry ice-encased custard at our hotel, The Sierra Grande, in Truth or Consequences. The locals were salt of the earth – generous with their time, eager to answer questions, passionate about their state. 

There are too many images to include in one post, so over the course of the next few weeks I’ll share more images from our adventure.

We started out at the Albuquerque International airport after picking up our Beetle. My Mum’s confidence in my driving skills dropped sharply after I fumbled with the keys, lost them for several minutes, and needed help unlocking the trunk. All of this happened before I’d placed the key in the ignition. We kept talk to a minimum, both of us sensing that this would be a very. long. trip.

It didn’t help that just off to the south was a fast-approaching wall of rain; mountains and indigo clouds illuminated by the occasional bolt of lightning.

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My mind churned. Both of ours did, guiltily. Our families were safe in their routines; and here we were getting ready to tackle this stormy terrain in something other than a 4-wheel drive off-roading machine.

That is, until a rental attendant pointed out that Santa Fe is due north. We sped out of Albuquerque and one hour later, pulled up to our hotel on a hill: The Lodge at Santa Fe.

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After a brief tour of the hotel, we hopped in a cab and headed to Santa Fe’s historic center: a cluster of blocks brimming with artwork, turquoise jewelry, and green chile everything.

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If I had a food philosophy, it could be summarized by the following: fast, fresh, local, anti-convenience.

I tacked the last part because fast, fresh and local food is available from many of our neighborhood restaurants; you can have it hand-delivered within minutes. But the anti-convenience gene makes me want to make it from scratch.

I make just about everything from scratch. Why bother with Organic Avenue’s ginger beet juice when I can make it at home with way more effort and virtually the same cost?

This might perplex people, but those who like to make things by hand will sympathize. I’m talking to you pasta-makers, bread-bakers, and ice cream-churners. We take the labor-intensive route, but in the end, I always think that food tastes better when it’s made at home.

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When we moved to our apartment in Chelsea, eating out wasn’t a choice. Our kitchen renovation took months, leaving us to either starve or find sustenance in the neighborhood. Which, when you’re living in New York City, isn’t the worst problem to have.

Momoya, a Japanese restaurant on 7th Avenue, quickly became a favorite. To the point where I had to institute house rules about switching who got to choose location.

To this day, left to his own devices, Rodney will order every delivery meal from Rocking Horse (chicken burrito, hold the watercress), and make every date night reservation at Momoya.

There, we get the same thing: tuna tarte, spicy tuna rolls, tuna, tuna, tuna, maybe a little bit of salmon to keep the peace.

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The odd thing about our love affair with tuna is that we rarely eat it at home.

Foragers Market is just a few blocks from home making it our go-to destination for groceries. The downside is that although Foragers carries the best roast chickens in the city, its smaller footprint (compared to Whole Foods just a few blocks over) means that they don’t carry certain items, including fresh seafood.

But, here’s the great news. I recently came across a new service called Our Harvest which delivers greenmarket produce (the kind of stuff that you’d normally find exclusively at farmers’ markets), fresh meats, fish and artisan – right to your door.

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