Soil and Cellar

Growing and preserving foods in Seattle


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The Bloedel Reserve – or – why I haven’t been blogging lately

The Bloedel residence. This is the scene that opens before you after a lovely wooded walk. The first time you turn out of the woods and see it your heart stops. And every time after the first, it still takes your breath away.

The Bloedel residence. This scene that opens before you after a lovely wooded walk. The first time you turn out of the woods and see it your heart stops. And every time after that, it still takes your breath away.

I haven’t been writing much lately. I miss it! But over the last month I’ve been working on a different project, one that I’ve finally completed. I have a new job! It’s at the Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island, my dream. My year of unemployment was a good one, giving me time to focus on myself and my plans, but I was getting a little stir crazy. This job came at the perfect time.

Erythronium (trout lily) and primroses growing along the path. Displays like this feel so natural, like they could happen in any woods. But it's all intentional, and very well tended.

Erythronium (trout lily) and primroses growing along the path. Displays like this feel so natural, like they could happen in any woods. But it’s all intentional, and very well tended.

The Bloedel Reserve has long been my favorite public garden, and it’s only an hour from my house. It is incredibly beautiful and peaceful, and the experience of walking through the garden is one that is hard to explain and impossible to forget. You feel taken to another world, one where you own a fancy estate and forests and fields. It’s basically been my goal to work there since I first visited over 10 years ago. I am still pinching myself that I get to be there every day.

The Japanese Garden at the Reserve.

The Japanese Garden at the Reserve.

My commute is long, but most of it is on a ferry. For you non-locals, Seattle is on a large salt water sound, and there are a lot of communities on islands in the Puget Sound and on the Olympic Penninsula to the west. Bainbridge Island is the nearest island to Seattle. Our ferry system is quite good, and tons of people commute on them every day. I go in the “opposite direction” from most of the traffic, so there aren’t many people on my ferry. It’s a beautiful ride, and it will give me time to write and read and relax.

Looking back to Seattle from a half empty ferry. The return ferry will be filled with commuters.

Looking back to Seattle from a half empty ferry. When this ferry returns to Seattle it will be filled with commuters.

I’ve been at the Reserve for a week, and already feel like it will be a great fit for me. I like the people a lot, and the location is killer. Plus, check out my view!

Here's the view from my desk! I've been thoroughly enjoying the daily changes, watching spring appear before my eyes in the little green buds on the Camperdown Elms (that the deer are also enjoying).

Here’s the view from my desk! I love watching spring appear before my eyes with little changes every day, like the little green buds on the Camperdown Elms (which the deer are also enjoying).

If you haven’t visited before, I can’t state strongly enough how you need to go soon. It’s beautiful every day of the year. And now I’m a part of the team that keeps this amazing resource open for everyone to enjoy. If you happen to be planning a visit, let me know!

 


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Cafe Flora at the Urban Spoon Dinner – IFBC

I wanted to write a post about the food at IFBC (the International Food Blogger Conference), but it was just too overwhelming. There was so much good food! From the swag bags to meal after meal of great food provided by local restaurants and bakeries. Rather than wade through a long list of yummy foods, I thought I’d just write about the best dining experience of the weekend. Spoondinner.

Our menu for the evening.

Our menu for the evening.

Spoondinner (#spoondinner on twitter was trending locally that night) was a really amazing benefit to the conference attendees. Sponsored by Urban Spoon, we were brought to one of 25 local restaurants and treated to a special meal, where we met chefs or owners, and mingled with new friends. I was taken to Café Flora, in Madison Park, because I’m vegetarian. Café Flora is already one of my favorite restaurants – I’ve been there for many a happy hour and birthday dinner. I was a little sad to not be sent somewhere new, but also knew I’d be treated to some great seasonal vegetarian food. I was right!

Yam fries with cayenne aioli, fantastic.

Yam fries with cayenne aioli, fantastic.

I arrived a little early, because I drove separately. There were 2 other bloggers already there, and we got to talking about food. It turns out that one of them, Pavi, is from the city in India I visited this summer, Chennai, and has a blog on South Indian cooking. I’m hoping we’ll get together soon to do some cooking.

Chanterelle mushroom and potato pierogi.

Chanterelle mushroom and potato pierogi.

Once the rest of the group arrived and we were all seated, we enjoyed 6 courses of wonderful food. Appetizers were a lentil-pecan pate and yam fries, my happy hour faves. Next we had chanterelle mushroom and potato pierogies with sour cream and chive dip. Then came my favorite course, the salads. It’s pretty rare I’m raving about a salad after a great meal, but the nectarine and black rice salad (arugula, avocado, radish, peanuts, with a citrus vinaigrette) was the perfect blend of textures and flavors using seasonal ingredients. And the other salad, a Caesar, was vegan! I dread restaurant Caesars because of the hidden anchovy. Instead, Cafe Flora uses fried capers for that hint of brininess.

Two salads - a vegan Ceasar with fried capers (brilliant!) and the nectarine and black rice salad. SO delicious!

Two salads – the vegan Ceasar with fried capers (brilliant!) and the nectarine and black rice salad. SO delicious!

As an aside, if you ever dine with a table full of bloggers who will be writing (and tweeting) about the experience, you’re going to need to wait for everyone to take photos of the food, from a variety of angles, before you dig in. And don’t be offended if they are on their phone during dinner, they’re tweeting about the food.

Heirloom tomato with sweet corn pizza - vegan. I sort of wished there were cheese on it, but that's just a universal truth with me.

Heirloom tomato with sweet corn pizza – vegan. I sort of wished there were cheese on it, but that’s just a universal truth with me.

Next came the pizza course (which, btw, should probably be a regular course, like the fish course or the cheese course.) We ended up with about one pizza per person at our table, which was insane, but it was because the people at Café Flora were so accommodating. We had gluten free people, lactose free, vegan, vegetarian, and even a person with a tomato allergy. Our waitress was so sweet, and was able to juggle who had which restrictions (even after a few of us switched seats!)

Oaxaca tacos - oh yeah!

Oaxaca tacos – oh yeah!

The last course before dessert was the Café Flora classic dish, the Oaxaca Tacos. These are tacos filled with cheesy mashed potatoes. Um… do you know how perfect potato tacos are? I know of a few places in town that have them, and they are always delicious. The Oaxaca tacos are a perennial hit, and have been on the menu for years, even though the restaurant changes other dishes seasonally. We we served the entire meal, not a smaller version of it. I was so full at this point I just ate the mashed potatoes with smoked mozzarella (ha, like that would help with me being full?) and the pico de gallo and braised greens on the side.

We were all having a blast and laughing, telling stories about food (many of us are vegetarian but our partners are not, so we talked about how we navigate that.) All the sudden, the conversation froze, and after a brief pause we all started laughing. Dessert was coming out, and it was huge. HUGE. I’m not really sure why we weren’t splitting desserts at this point, but we weren’t. I had peach blackberry crisp. I love a fruit dessert, but honestly after tasting all three I liked the chocolate brownie one best (although about 3 bites would have been enough.)

Three dessert options - coconut layer cake, chocolate brownie coupe, and peach blackberry crisp. All vegan, and all incredibly rich - I'll have mine with coffee, thanks!

Three dessert options – coconut layer cake, chocolate brownie coupe, and peach blackberry crisp. All vegan, and all incredibly rich – I’ll have mine with coffee, thanks!

So that’s the food, and I haven’t even told you one of the best parts! The owner of Café Flora, Nat Stratton-Clarke, came and talked with us about the restaurant and his history there. He used to work as the manager, and bought the café 8 years ago when the owners were going to retire. He has maintained the restaurant with much the same philosophy – local, fresh, vegetarian, and keeping the focus on produce and not proteins. I especially appreciate that last part, because I don’t connect with the reliance on “fake meat” in some vegetarian restaurants. As Nat said, there is so much great food that just happens to be vegetarian. Café Flora is also a “scratch kitchen,” so they make everything in house (including syrups for the cocktails). The chef, Janine Doran, has been at Flora for over 20 years!

Nat Stratton-Clark, owner, telling us about Cafe Flora's history and mission.

Nat Stratton-Clarke, owner, telling us about Cafe Flora’s history and mission, while the diners tweet about and photograph the food.

They buy from at least 40 different farms, but really like Whistling Train Farm in Kent, WA (just southeast of Seattle). As an aside, I was at the Columbia City Farmer’s Market last week and I swear I saw Nat. He was asking about something called “cheese pumpkins” which they didn’t have in yet. I Googled it, and they look like a really nice squash, beautiful to look at and tasty to eat. Thanks for the recommendation, Nat! I tried to follow Nat to see what else he was getting, but he was so fast that he got away (another aside – following people at the market is a great way to learn about new ingredients!) I might go out to Café Flora again in the next few weeks to see what they do with the cheese pumpkin.

I’d like to thank Urban Spoon for hosting this dinner. I know it couldn’t have been cheap, but I think that it really was an inspired event. It’s one thing to have food delivered, but it’s entirely different to go out to a restaurant and spend the evening talking with new friends. And of course a huge thank you to Café Flora, for being delicious and gracious, and such a great Seattle tradition.

ifbc2013

And as a reminder to my other food blogger friends, IFBC will be in Seattle again next September! You can register here. I highly recommend it, regardless of your level as a blogger. I’m new and had a great weekend. I think that professional bloggers got a lot out of it, too, judging by the responses on Twitter, Facebook, and in their blogs. It’s a great opportunity to network, learn a lot, and get inspired. I hope to see you there!


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Pea Flowers

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve written about our garden, so I thought I’d drop in a quick update. Soon I will post about the construction of our raised beds; I just have to, you know, construct them. It will involve saws and drills, quite exciting!

Garden front May

Our front yard. Included are epimedium, nepeta (catmint), hellebore, columbine, lilac, spirea, stewartia (tree), Rhododendron thompsonii (with the red new growth) and peony ‘Bartzella’ back against the house.

Here’s a picture of our front yard. It’s a jungle right now, which D loves. I do too, but I also find it a bit overwhelming. It’s that first flush of spring when every plant gets a little bigger, a little closer to its neighbor, and makes me worry we have too much in too small a space. At some point things will need to be shuffled about, but not just yet. (I say that every year.)

Of note, that peony in the background was a wedding gift from a dear friend and it’s my favorite plant in our yard – Peony ‘Bartzella.’ It’s fancy but seriously worth it. It’s intersectional, which means it’s a cross between a tree peony and herbaceous peony, and the best of both worlds. The blossoms are 6-8” and just so beautiful.

Peony 'Bartzella' flowers up close.

Peony ‘Bartzella’ flowers up close.

Ok, on to the food producing plants! The peas have been growing well, are a good ways up the trellis, and are blooming. I am so excited. I realize that’s silly, they are the easiest things to grow, but it’s just so satisfying. I placed them in the ground with my fingers, and weed them and water them. I would never be so foolish to say that they are like my own little honor students, but I do feel pride. And impatience. When do I get to eat them? Not yet! Why? Because they don’t have fruit! Oh.

Pea flower. I love how it looks like an cartoon dog, or an angry old man.

Peas with flowers. I love how the blossom looks like a cartoon dog, or an angry old man.

And finally, the “orchard” is looking healthy. The fig leaves have expanded and are quite beautiful. I water it regularly because we’ve had such a warm spring and I planted it bare root. The Italian prune is also looking good, although I did have to cut back two branches that were dead. ☹ Keeping fingers crossed on that one. I feel nervous because we lost one prune a couple years ago, and I don’t want to lose this one, too. For you non-Seattleites out there, Italian prunes are nearly ubiquitous in Seattle, and are phenomenally delicious. Every summer offices all over town have bowls of prunes for coworkers to take, because almost no one can use all the fruit that one tree produces. I plan to try, but will of course have to wait a year or two for fruit. More patience.

Fig leaves, keep on chugging along little fig!

Fig leaves getting bigger. Keep on chugging along, little fig!

Hope you’re all having a great spring. What are you excited about in your garden?