The Thrill of the Mystery Box: How proximity and inspiration create cuisine

The year was 1995, and restaurant food was changing dramatically in Portland.  A new cadre of chefs were shaking things up at Pazzo, Wildwood, Paley’s Place and Higgins. David Machado, Cory Schreiber, Vitaly Paley and Greg Higgins were seeking out local farmers; the modern day Portland Farmer’s Market debuted in 1992, and the chefs were its strongest supporters, coming down Saturday morning at its location under the Broadway bridge to do cooking demonstrations and buy for their kitchens.

I remember one long conversation I had with David, Cory, Vitaly and Greg. I asked them, “does Portland, and Oregon, have a cuisine?”  They answered almost in unison, “No!” They knew at that time that they were still cooking what they knew from other places and locales. They loved what the few farmers at the time were bringing them. Cory, especially, with the longest Oregon roots, relied on our history and sense of place … our berries and seafood and tree fruit.  But nothing really just said Oregon or the Pacific Northwest, not the way gumbo said Louisiana or a vinegary barbecue said North Carolina.

So how does a place become home of a cuisine? What brings a cuisine about? And now, 17 years since that day I discussed cuisine with some enduring Portland chefs, is there an Oregon cuisine? A Portland cuisine? A Gorge cuisine, perhaps? And what impact do we … farmers, chefs, kitchen garden dabblers, ranchers and home cooks … have on cuisine?

I am not a food historian, but from my observation at knife point, in the kitchen, it is clear  to me that great cuisines spring from the magical interplay of two things  — seasonal proximity, that is, what grows when; and the inspiration of chefs AND those who must put dinner on the table each night.

If you’ve ever wondered who created that wonderful seafood stew that hails from San Francisco, known as cioppino, I can end the suspense for you: the Portuguese and Italian fishermen, back to the dock in the early afternoon,  just “chipped in” to the kettle whatever they had from their gardens and what was left on the boat at the end of the day.

If you’ve ever wondered how Louisiana bayou cooks came up with the trinity, that combination of onions, celery and PEPPERS that’s added to roux in gumbo, jambalaya and ettouffe, I can end the suspense for you. It’s the Cajun equivalent of French mirapoix … which is onions, celery and CARROTS. It’s just that carrots don’t grow well in the boggy soil of the Louisiana lowlands. But peppers do. And that simple substitution … peppers for carrots … is the foundation of a cuisine.

If you ate with us recently and wondered what inspired me to create a salad of pears, beets, turnips, and candied bacon, for the top of our roasted double-thick Mountain Shadow pork chop, I can end the suspense for you: It’s what Dan and Brian brought me from Hood River Organic that morning. All together. In a box.

And yet for years in this country we have mixed and matched foods across their seasons like mad, tasteless clothing designers. If we looked like we eat, we’d wear pink platform Crocs, green plaid golf knickers, a royal blue Chanel jacket, topped off with a purple Shred Alert beanie. All at the same time. Rather than letting the foods in their seasons speak for themselves, we’ve shoved them into loveless arranged marriages.

Thankfully, in the last 20 years, chefs and farmers in America have re-introduced themselves to each other. And the passion for cooking with what’s fresh and local, from ranchers, fishermen, dairymen, winemakers, brewers and farmers, has been rekindled.

In the Gorge, this return to the natural order of things has been fairly recent. When I opened Viento in 2005, I had a hard time finding a farmer. When I did find a few, I had to convince them to sell me things. They were completely oriented to individual sales, mainly because they understood it. Far be it from me to stand between a farmer and a home cook, but by selling to me, and the other chefs here, we chefs have been able to do something for the farmers they just couldn’t achieve without us: we show them off, and demonstrate how to do more than just companion planting. We demonstrate companion cooking. And it is at that point where a cuisine begins to emerge.

Take strawberries and radishes. Together they create the perfect salad. Why?  Dancing Moon Farm has wonderful strawberries as early as June, when the radishes coming from Laurel and Paul at Wildwood Farm, just a bend in the river from Nic’s strawberries, are also fabulous. Add some crisp arugula from Windflower Farm, toss with a little honey balsamic vinaigrette, and watch the sweet berries and the peppery radishes sing in harmony.

This is how restaurants and farmers are creating a Gorge cuisine. Chefs are more willing to take risks with food and in fact, our diners expect it of us. They want to see us try new things, and perhaps inspire them to cut thin rounds of radishes and thin rounds of strawberries and toss them together.

June, July and August: why that’s high clover, easy cooking. In February, when faced with week after week of winter kale, rainbow chard and collard greens, it’s easy to grow queasy when another green leafy thing comes out of that CSA box. But, my dear locavore friends, that’s when it gets interesting, and what drives the creation of a cuisine: persistence using what is at hand.

Have you tried a fine, raw chiffonade of winter greens, with a mustardy vinaigrette, and piled it on a steak? Or tried pickling the stems and serving with sausage? Or steamed them and stuffed them with rice, as a substitute for grape leaves in delicious, lemony dolmas?  Have you had them cooked slow with pork belly, and topped with eggs, for breakfast?  Or, as we did this week at Nora’s, braised kale raab with dried Sierra figs and garlic in some of Rich Cushman’s Riesling, served with a drizzle of fig vin cotto, and shaved parmesan. Unless we are willing to stick with what the season gives us, even for weeks on end, we would never go beyond boiled greens, and never discover the amazing depth and complexity, and yes, variety, of winter greens.

But when I want to come up with something new for our diners week after week, and when I am committed to what I can get, as close to home as I can get it, I will apply everything I know and imagine to the food at hand.  And I hope what we make in our kitchen might inspire you to do the same at home.

Thankfully, our farmers do more than just say, “this is what I got this week.”  I have creative conversations each spring with our farmers who ask, “What can we grow for you this year?” And I have answers: sorrel, lovage, chervil, French gray shallots, fresh shell beans. I ask them to push the envelope, to grow things that perhaps their CSA and market customers have not asked for. But then, when those same customers come to Nora’s and taste fresh shell beans for the first time, maybe then they’ll know what to ask for, and even have an idea of how to prepare them.

So here’s a challenge for you, a way to add your voice and inspiration to what may someday be known as an Oregon or a Pacific Northwest, or even a Gorge cuisine.  Open your next CSA box. Do not consult a cookbook. Instead, just let your eyes wander over the bounty inside, and make something with the contents that you’ve never tasted before. Challenge yourself to eat what has sprung up together. Then open a bottle of local wine, and bon appétit.





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