Archive for the ‘Stuff I Like’ Category

A few weeks ago, I was able to head to Seattle for the baby shower of my dear friends, Cynthia and Nik.  Rumors say the little Mister is likely to come nearly any day now, as he has already begun to outgrow his surroundings, despite a May 12 due date.

I was called up last minute for cake duty, and I am pleased to note that if you are asked to bring cake on the Amtrak train for approximately 20 people, it’s not as difficult as one might imagine.

The best solution is to make 2 of Molly (aka Orangette)’s “winning-hearts-and-minds-chocolate cakes“, keep them in their tins in a tupperware, and then douse with fresh strawberries & fresh whipped cream upon arrival.   It wasn’t necessarily a baby shower cake, but I’ve found people get over the lack of pastels & overly sweet frosting when you put a delicious chocolate  cake in their faces.

While my cake made it safely and in a timely manner to Seattle, my return trip was not as smooth.

I had the unfortunate luck at the end of that weekend as I stepped into the train station approximately 30 seconds after they closed the train doors & refused to let me or another passenger on.  They did offer me a spot on the next train leaving at 5:30pm (the time was now 2:22pm).  *(and nicely did not charge me extra – try that one at the airport! I do love you still, Amtrak, even if you are stubborn)

So…I found myself with about 3 hours to kill in Seattle on a lovely sunny afternoon (ironically, I’d been bemoaning the fact that I’d be spending such a nice afternoon on the train).  Conveniently, Pike Place Market is a fairly short walk from the train station and a perfect place on a spring day.

Even more conveniently, one of my favorite specialty shops EVER is right behind the market — World Spice Merchants.  They have jars and jars of spices and blends from all over the world – many I’ve never heard of – and they encourage you to open the jars & take a sniff if you like.

The place feels like old Seattle to me — the floors are little funky and the bricks show through, the light filters in softly, and there is a tea area on the next level down.  It’s the Seattle I used to love as a teen – not the overly trendy, pricey, urbanized Seattle that sometimes feels like seeing someone you knew as a toddler now wearing too much make up.  The counter staff is exceptionally nice, and don’t complain when you order 1 ounce of 5 different spices (most of the spices have a 1 ounce minimum order; some have 2 ounces, especially the blends, I think).

This place is great for trying out new spices without committing to a full jar.  And, we all know we’re supposed to toss those jars annually for freshness, so why buy that much to begin with?  *(confession: I don’t toss my spices, I’m kinda thrifty at the expense of good taste).

On this lucky bonus visit, I got aleppo pepper, dried chipotle flakes, gomasio (Japanese sea salt/sesame seed condiment), and garam masala (Indian).   The aleppo (a dried & crumbled pepper from Syria) has been the star so far — it’s a lovely way to add heat without overpowering a dish.

Aleppo Pepper

Aleppo Pepper - image from World Spice Merchants webpage

I’d been nervous about the chipotle being quite hot as I am a little bit wussy about hot peppers, but I found it was perfect in the black bean soup I made this weekend.  Earlier this year, I went in on an order with a friend of Rancho Gordo beans – they are a farm that specializes in heirloom beans and shipping is a flat $8, no matter what you order so it’s worth ordering with a friend or two to split the shipping cost.  I got the sampler pack as it was my first order, and I wasn’t sure what to get.

I’ve only just started cooking beans from scratch — canned beans are so convenient, but I can tell the difference with the dried beans in taste and texture (and sodium!).  I was perusing the recipes on the Rancho Gordo website for ideas this weekend and decided to go with a variation on the vegetarian black bean chowder from Heidi Swanson of 101 Cookbooks (a great food blogger with a focus on healthy recipes), as I wanted to try out my package of Midnight Black Beans.

Rancho Gordo Midnight Black Beans

Rancho Gordo Midnight Black Beans - photo from website

Here’s my spin on it – I decided to mix the tangy kick of the OJ with the toasty chipotle heat & smoky paprika.  Feel free to toss in whatever veggies around your crisper or lingering in your leftovers:

Black Bean & OJ Chipotle Soup

a glug of olive oil
1 onion, chopped
3 shallots, chopped
1 tsp salt
4 cloves garlic, minced
2-4 small zucchini, chopped
1-2 carrots, peeled & chopped
~4 cups of Rancho Gordo midnight black beans, cooked and drained (I started with about 1/2 lb dried) or about 2 cans of black beans
1 (28-oz.) can crushed tomatoes
2 cups of orange juice
1/2 tsp dried chipotle flakes (could sub cayenne pepper or canned chipotles — use chipotles to your level of acceptable spicy-ness!)
1 tsp smoked hot paprika
good shake of chili powder & cumin — maybe 1 tsp each

Saute onions, shallots, and salt in olive oil in a large soup pot for about 5 minutes or till softened.  Add garlic after about 3 minutes, once the onions start releasing some moisture (I always overcook my garlic if I put it in at the beginning with my onions).  Add other veggies (zukes & carrots) and cook till softened.

Toss into the pot:  beans, tomatoes, orange juice, and spices.  Bring to a boil, reduce to low, and simmer (covered) for 10 minutes.  Add salt if needed.   I served mine with a little sour cream & cheese for topping, along with corn bread on the side.

Last night’s recipe via the web (a sweet-n-sour tempeh recipe) that I tried out was not so successful and resulted in a painful burn from honey (don’t ask!) and lumpy cornstarch.  So, not all internet recipes become princes, but this soup has royal status in my house.


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In early December, a piece in the Oregonian’s A & E section about places in Portland serving fancy hot chocolate drinks caught my eye.  It named a few places I was familiar with already such as Cacao (great chocolate drinks & addictive 50 cent salted caramels by their register – hello, storefront by the Heathman!) and Pix Patisserie.  I noted one I had to yet to try – Alma Chocolate – located in one of my favorite neighborhoods I’ve lived in Portland along the restaurant row of NE 28th and Burnside.   Mmm… fancy hot chocolate on a gray Portland winter day, yes please!

I had the luck to enter a drawing while waiting for my drink, and the even better luck to actually win!  I was quite shocked to get a message on my cell phone one Sunday in January summoning me to pick up my prize bag, with the instructions that today was best to claim my prize, as something about “fresh cookies being baked.”

Needless to say, we fit that into our errands for the day and arrived at Alma at the same time as the other drawing winner.   We went through swift negotiations that would impress the U.N. as we determined that I would take the “salty/smoky” bag and she would take the “spicy” bag.  Okay, there wasn’t much to negotiate over – either way, we were going home with a bag of loot, chocolate loot.

Alma bag contents

Contents of my bag from Alma Chocolate

I was quite stunned actually at my winnings and mumbling something that hopefully sounded like “thanks” as I high-tailed it out of there, before they could decide they’d made a mistake.  Once safely in the car, I delved into my findings and felt giddy like a contestant on the Price is Right.  I had about a 1/2 dozen fresh cookies (one of each kind offered that day), 3 packages of various chocolate barks, a small bag of tea, and a jar of Alma’s housemade caramel sauce, all with a salty or smoky tea theme.

Alma cookies

My share of the Alma cookies

Once home, cookies were sampled with our afternoon tea.  It gets a little fuzzy here as let’s be honest, we basically gobbled them up, but let’s just say they were good!  In particular, I believe it was a salted peanut butter chunk one that made me especially pleased.  The size of the cookies was just right – I split each with my fellow and still had a good taste of each.  They weren’t over-sized either – which means you can easily try a few at a time, an option I always like as I like to try everything!

Over the next few weeks, I rationed out my prize, nibbling little chunks of the various bars:

*Salted Nutty Toffee Mini Bar – a small candy bar of dark chocolate speckled on top with crunchy chunks of nuts & toffee & sea salt

*Pistachio Toffee – a layer of thin dark chocolate sandwiched onto crunchy toffee thick with pistachios

*Salted Peanut Milk Chocolate Bark – my favorite of all three – the chocolate in this one had a slight peanut buttery taste, like a really excellent Reese’s Peanut Butter cup

So I’m trying to be critical here, but I really found little fault in any of the items.  To me, there are few combos more divine than chocolate + salt. This bag of treats has only made me more excited to return and sample more of their items, especially their truffles.  Some of their goods like the chocolate icons gilded in 23k edible gold leaf are amazing to look at, and they also do fun seasonal shapes like owls or Day of the Dead skeletons.

As an added bonus, my Chinook book (I keep mentioning this book, as it’s got some awesome deals at local businesses) has a coupon for a free truffle with purchase of a drink.  Uh, twist my arm?

I have two items left in my bag o’goodies – a small baggie of bulk lapsang souchong tea and lapsang souchong caramel sauce.  The sauce’s first ingredient is cream, followed by sweeteners and butter — I think this will be to my liking!

The only dilemma is what to serve it on, besides spooning it straight of the jar.  Vanilla ice cream seems obvious, but I am also think it might be nice drizzled over some roasted pears or a simple cake of some sort.  Ideas, anyone?

I’ll share in my next post a surprising use for the lapsang souchong tea.

Essential Details:

Alma Chocolate
140 NE 28th Ave
Portland, OR 97232
There is an online store if you don’t live in PDX, but if you are one of the lucky ones, current hours of their shop are Mon-Sat 10am-6pm, Sun 11am-4pm

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One of my favorite Trader Joe’s products is their Soyaki teriyaki sauce.  I think it’s the TJ-version of Soy Vay, which is similarly great (especially the wasabi one -yum!).

Trader Joe's Island Soyaki sauce

I like this stuff for several reasons:

  • It’s pretty cheap & lasts a long time in the fridge.
  • It’s tasty!  It’s got a mix of great stuff like ginger, pineapple juice, sesame seeds, garlic, and soy sauce.  Shake it up well before using!
  • It’s a great protein marinade when you’re short on time & ideas.

I used it the other night to marinate tuna that my brother caught, then quickly sauteed thin slices of the tuna and served it bento-style with steamed broccoli & brown rice.  It’s also great with salmon, and I use it for an easy baked tofu, too (just chop tofu in chunks or wedges, mix with sauce & bake in one layer on a cookie sheet at 400 degrees for about 30-45 min).

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