Brisk. Brisk and breezy and wet and downright cold. I am in the Northwestern part of Oregon and everything Kathy, my fiancee, told me about what late winter/early spring here, is true. There is a fire always burning here in the wood stove and thank God there is. I've been rained on, snowed on and yes, even hailed on. There has been, from time to time, an actual patch of blue sky, but only very rarely.
The transition between Costa Rican summer and late winter/early spring in N. West Oregon has been notable. And it is notably difficult for someone who has spent the last 25 months in Central America. But I am here for the best of all possible reasons; love. And for that I am grateful, pleased, blissful and doing my best to be in denial about the climatic conditions
I am told that this is typical for late winter/early spring in these parts and that gradually, ever so gradually conditions improve. It's one of those two steps forward, one step back kind of things, with insidious rain and the occasional sneak attack of snow still waiting to darken skies that would be blue. Or so I am told.
I have come from the jungles outside of Uvita on the south Pacific coast of Costa Rica. I was living down a dirt road with coconut trees in my front yard, iguanas coming in my front door and howler monkeys serenading me just outside the back. Now I am in low mountain forest, living down a dirt road with a horse in the back, deer and elk prancing/thundering across the yard, the occasional moutain lion or bear, and rain; yes, the famous cold Oregon rain.
I've traded toucans for owls, palm trees for cedars, geckos for barn mice and sunsets for hail storms. But I know the weather will change and although I seem to be having trouble keeping my feet warm, it is not something that brings me great distress. Kathy and I live over 11 miles from town and there is a peace here, a silence and a stillness that rivals that of the deep jungles. Rural here in Oregon is not so different from rural in Costa Rica. Farmers are farmers wherever one goes and houses here are just as scattered away from each other as they are down the roads that lead into the hills outside of Uvita.
Our house, the house that Kathy has welcomed me into, is warm, secure, cozy and filled with love. I have taken on the house chores, outside chores and have earned my way into the heart of Molly, her wise and amusing dog. And still I cook. I always cook and here it is just about using different ingredients. I will use the same techniques, I always use the same techniques, but now I return to the slower cooking styles. Braising, roasting and a kitchen filled with lingering smells of legumes, whole birds and yes, meats have replaced an open and airy stove where fish is cooked in seconds and sauces are just tosses of fresh fruits and raw vegetables.
This is winter cooking now and will change as the weather warms. Like the area I came from in Costa Rica, this is an agricultural area, but the changes here are dramatic and the cooking is reflective of those changes, whereas in the Zona Sur there really are no changes of season. At the San Isidro feria I could buy ripe tomatoes year round. The price would change from time to time, but rarely did my cooking reflect radical seasonality. The fruits would change, but the changes in the vegetable seasons were not so nearly apparent.
And so what have I been cooking? Cooking for myself and my loved ones? Funny you should ask. In a bit of a change, I've been eating a lot of my own cooking lately. Kathy and I passed through Austin on our way here and stayed with my sister, Barbara and my brother in law, Pete. I have always enjoyed cooking with my sister and the stop there eased the difficulty of the transition back to life in North America.
We cooked and ate with them a couple of nights and our meals started off with some serious looking inch and half thick Berkshire porterhouse pork chops that ended up in a smoky dry rub and over a mesquite fire. I braised some cavolo nero (black kale/dino kale) to go with garlicky roasted yukon gold potatoes. The next day we hit a cold and blustery Austin farmer's market for fresh shrimp to pair with chaurice and andouille sausages from my friend Jessie Griffith's Dai Due kitchen in a batch of Mardi Gras week Jambalaya. I roasted both tomatoes and shrimp shells (yes, separately) to make a rich stock to cook the shrimp in to put over the rice base and it spicy success.
When we had arrived in Austin it was 72 degrees and that had dropped into the high 40's the next day, but that still didn't prepare me for my arrival in Portland. We got in at 8:45 at night and it was a windy 37 degrees, with a hard sideways rain pelting down. We ended up at Kathy's house, a bit southeast in Scotts Mills, which I'm still getting used to calling "home" around 10:30, and suddenly I was a North American again.
And yes, the food has been decidedly of the cold weather "comfort" nature as it hasn't risen much above 50 in the ten days I've been here and the evenings visit into the mid-30's pretty frequently. The first dinner I cooked was a roasted locally raised organic chicken and really, is there no better comfort food than a roast chicken? Not only does it warm and fill the house with that wonderful roast chicken smell, it is ever so good for the soul.
We are beginning to get some of those first of the spring vegetables and I had forgotten how much I have missed asparagus and artichokes. I grew up in the East Bay in Northern California and learned to eat those two representatives of Spring at an early age. My parents grew asparagus in our back yard in Lafayette and they often teased my about how, in my early years, I even ate the asparagus off their plates as well as those on my own.
Artichokes were even more of a family tradition as we would take two jaunts a year down to the Monterey Peninsula, one in the Spring and one in the Fall (timed coincidentally, or perhaps not) with the two yearly yields of artichokes from the Castroville and Watsonville fields. I learned to eat the prickly thistle at the age of three and have just recently gotten over gazing gape-mouthed at those who have said they have never eaten an artichoke. How could one live without them?
I must have still been in Costa Rican mode then, when the sight of both "A" vegetables caught me by surprise at a local farmstand market. I picked up the banded stalks of asparagus as one might a precious jewel. These were the real deal; locally grown and almost sweet smelling at the stalk. And right next to them were bins of giant globe artichokes with that telltale frost bitten brownish edge at the top of their thistly leaves.
Those two were consumed the first two nights we had them at the house. The asparagus simply par-boiled and then sauteed in butter, served with a roasted rare flatiron steak from locally raised cattle. The slices of the rare (and quite delicious) beef took a backseat while I scarfed down the fat spears while they were still warm from the pan. And yes, they were amazing; sweet in that way that fresh "grass" can be and filled with that totally unique flavor.
The next night we decided to eat vegetarian and feature the artichokes as well as some goodies from Kathy's garden. I had picked through a box of last year's potatoes and onions and picked out the ones that had made it though the winter without rotting. I had been told there were still leeks in the garden. The New York Times had just published some recipes espousing leeks as the great end of winter vegetable and I had culled one I really liked for a potato-leek gratin with gruyere. Perfect.
I tromped through the fresh mud of the garden and pulled the last of the leeks out of the dense earth, their roots clumped with dark black mud. The outside pipes are still turned off to prevent freezing so it was into the kitchen to clean these babies. When I held the fresh leeks under the faucet the mud nearly exploded and flew all over the kitchen. Kathy has taken to surveying the kitchen after I have had my way with it these past few days and saying, while shaking her head, "I live with a chef". And this was certainly one of those moments.
I sliced the potatoes and tossed them with cream and salt and pepper, then layered them in a pyrex. I sliced and de-mudded the leeks and sauteed them in butter with a couple of crushed garlic cloves and laid them over the top of the potatoes. The shredded gruyere went on next and a bit more cream to moisten it all. I liked the way this looked. I covered the top with foil and popped it into the oven.
Now it was time for the chokes. I trimmed off a bit of the stem, but not too much, it is just an extension of the heart, after all, and made sure they stood up without falling. They got plopped into our largest sauce pan and were followed in by a lemon cut in half and squeezed, four crushed garlic cloves and a splash of olive oil. I filled the pot so that it came halfway up the artichokes and put it on to boil. The tops of the chokes stuck out above the edge of the pan and it turned out there was not a top in our kitchen that would fit so I improvised a stainless steel bowl as a lid and it fit nice and snug. The chokes came to a boil and I dropped the heat and affixed the bowl over the top so they could steam to doneness.
I have always been of the "mayonnaise school" as opposed to the "melted butter school" for my dipping sauce of choice and my family was always a Best Foods family. Personally, I find it a good product, but a bit sweet. I countered that by squeezing in more lemon juice and adding a couple of dashes of tabasco. I minced some small green onions quite finely and then stirred in an ounce or two of extra virgin olive oil; Best Foods just got better and I was salivating.
About 40 minutes later I pulled the foil off the gratin for the last ten minutes to get a nice crust on top and pulled a leaf out of one of the chokes to test the doneness. It was all going to happen at the same time. Excellent. We had a ripe avocado and some of those vine-ripened hot-house tomatoes, so I tossed chunks of each with lemon, olive oil, salt and pepper and that was salad. We cut wedges out of the gratin, taking in the sweet smell of the steam; we placed the giant chokes on the plate and we spooned some salad somewhere between the two. It was vegetarian and it was delightful. Kathy went back for seconds on the gratin (and had the last of hit for breakfast); great recipe. And the artichokes? Such a long-lost treat. I could eat another one today.