Thursday, March 31, 2005

Home (State) Cooking

I realized last night that it has been quite some time since I posted anything of substance, and that it has also been quite some time since I blogged on two of my favorite topics: My beloved home state, and cooking. I shall endeavor to kill three birds with one stone.

Now, for a long time, there was no "Oregon Cuisine" to speak of, at least not in restaurants. We have been an economically poor state for some time, and were predominantly rural as well. This didn't lend itself to a commercial gourmet identity. But there was a foundation waiting to be built upon, and recently some Oregon chefs have started to build on it. Most notable of these is Caprial Pence.

To understand a region's cuisine, you must look at its history and culture. And to understand Oregon's history and culture, one must start with a three-word phrase: The Oregon Trail.

The Oregon Trail was the largest voluntary land migration in recorded history. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 300,000 people made the arduous crossing from Independence, Missouri, to the Willamette Valley. Just like the nation it became the 33rd state of, Oregon was founded by immigrants. But there's a catch. Most of the immigrants who came to Oregon came from America itself. So while old families in the east can say that their ancestors came from Germany or England or Ireland, many old Oregon families can say that our ancestors came from Pennsylvania, or Ohio, or Maine, or Virginia. The implication for our culture, and our cuisine, should be obvious. It is derived directly from the cuisines of the regions from which those original settlers came. You’ll find Southern influences, Midwestern influences, and New England influences. And often you’ll find an amalgam of all these. In addition, because of the Spartan conditions on the trail, most settlers arrived here with very little left in the way of foodstuffs. So while they brought their recipes with them, they had to modify them to use local ingredients.

Luckily for these early Oregonians, there were plenty of local ingredients from which to choose. The Pacific Northwest was (and still is to a lesser extent) teeming with game, seafood, and wild edible plants. These too added their influence to Oregon food, as did the indigenous people who had used them for centuries. We became addicted to salmon and crab, halibut and rockfish and clams and venison and elk and trout.

Another way that the Oregon Trail influenced our cuisine is in the very reason for the migration: arable land. Every year the Willamette River and its tributaries carry tons of rich, dark volcanic soil down from the mountains into the valley where is becomes some of the most fertile farmland in the nation. Over the years, the very foodstuffs that the settlers and their descendants have grown for sale to other places have also become inextricably tied to our own diets: berries, pears, mint, potatoes and onions, milk and cheese, winter wheat, filberts (hazelnuts to people who live where they’re not grown). Recently the big player in this has been wine.

There have been other influences as well. Later eaves of immigration brought people directly from other countries, so there are direct ethnic influences as well, sometimes localized in specific communities – Junction City, just north of Eugene, is Scandinavian. Mt. Angel outside of Salem is very German. As part of the Ring of Fire, there’s also a strong Asian influence.

I have become more and more aware of this as, after returning to my home state as an adult, I have attempted to develop recipes and dishes and meals that have a distinctly Oregon flavor. I have tried to take two different tacks: One is to take recipes with origins in other regions, states, and countries, and replace key ingredients with Oregon products. My Beef Oregonian is one example of this. The other approach has been to start with a main Oregon ingredient, and build a recipe around it. My efforts so far have produced few recipes, but those I have developed make me proud.

And so, bearing all of this in mind, I would like to submit a good spring/summer grilling recipe, with an Oregon flavor to it:

Brian’s Filbert Encrusted Steelhead

This dish is a variation on a method for cooking fish, especially salmon and steelhead, that has been used by indigenous peoples in the Northwest for centuries. I have added a modern Oregon twist to it. I prefer steelhead, but you could also use salmon (steelhead is not a salmon; it is a subspecies of rainbow trout). Top preference in this case goes to Coho, but use farm salmon if you must.

This is definitely a dish best served over a grill, though you can use an oven if necessary. If you use a grill, use an aromatic wood on the grill. The native tree favored for such grilling here in the Northwest is alder, though oak or apple would work too. Avoid mesquite or hickory, as these are not native to the Northwest. Absolutely necessary for the recipe are four untreated cedar planks, thoroughly soaked with water. Originally the Indians pegged the salmon to these boards, but we will alter that method slightly, for reasons that will become plain later.

The recipe calls for:

4 steelhead filets, skin on, 6-8 oz.
1 cup finely chopped raw filberts
1 cup honey
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon finely chopped dill weed
1 lemon, quartered
4 sprigs dill weed for garnish

Mince the garlic as finely as possible. The dill weed should also be finely chopped. Mix both with the honey. Place the steelhead filets on the cedar planks, skin down. Lightly sprinkle them with lemon, then salt and pepper to taste. Spread the honey mixture over the steelhead until it is completely coated. Sprinkle the chopped filberts on top until they completely encrust the tops of the filets. Place the planks on the grill or in a 300 degree oven, close the grill lid and cook until the flesh of the fish is firm. The filberts should be slightly toasted and the honey should be caramelized at the edges.

Plating suggestions:

Leave the steelhead on the planks, garnish with more dill weed.

Side dishes that will go well with this dish and give a further PNW flavor would be:

Fried russet potatoes (what did you think the “ORE” in “ORE-IDA” stood for?). Do not peel. Slice into rounds and fry with slices of sweet yellow onions – Oregon Hood Rivers or Washington Walla Wallas. Simple seasoning is the best – salt, pepper, maybe paprika.

A Northwest-influenced salad: cranberries, mixed greens, pears, and more filberts with a raspberry vinaigrette.

I prefer a soft red wine with salmon and steelhead, not white. You might try a blush, I never have. If you do, a good Pinot Noir Blanc, if you can get it, is almost as complex as a straight P.N., but is more refreshing in summer (note to fellow Oregonians: Saginaw Vineyards, between Eugene and Cottage Grove just off I-5, makes one that rocks). Of course the natural match for Oregon wines would be Pinot Noir. Otherwise a Shiraz or Syrah might also work, but I haven’t tried them.

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