Food became a huge part of my week—not restaurant food, mind you, but good old-fashioned home cooking. Gorgeous local produce, tomatoes, corn, stone fruit, berries, radishes, green lettuces, put me in the mood to get in the kitchen.
Let me begin with last Saturday’s party at my new friend, Rod’s home in North Portland. Rod’s invitation said outdoor barbecue, and I wanted to bring a salad, but nothing with mayonnaise to lay out in the hot sun and bake. So with Lidia Bastianich as inspiration, I made a rice salad with Arborio rice tossed with small cubes of roasted red beets, diced celery, shopped scallions, radishes, edamame, minced parsley, salt, pepper and olive oil and red wine vinegar.
I took one bus, but went from the south east part of the city to way up north and got there in seventy minutes. Rod, Travis, Joel and Jason share their lives in a beautifully restored Craftsman-style house on a nostalgic-looking tree-lined street. Originally two couples when they met, they became a romantic foursome and five years ago bought a big house in need of a major updating. Gay people are transformers, and this quartet transformed this house. Travis is a merchandise wizard, so the living room is a mixture of high style contemporary with some antique touches. Rod, who is a fund-raiser for one of the major colleges in Portland, likes to look and he’s in charge of the kitchen. Joel is the gardener in the family and the front and back yards reflect his eclectic taste—a banana tree shares space with dahlias; huge blue glazed ceramic pots filled with bamboo, line the side deck walls, giving the space style and height. There are a lot of rooms with beds, presumably for guests, and a huge family room, but the “master” bedroom area blew my mind. The bedroom has two giant king-sized beds put together with four pillows! Beyond that is a huge room that has been turned into a giant walk-in closet with two rows of suits, jackets, pants, slacks, shirts, dressers and a four-tiered shoe rack—afterall, these guys are gay, which means lots and lots of shoes!
I met Rod’s mother and father. His mother is a hoot. Rod introduced us—“Ma, this is Greg—the guy I met on the plane from New York.” “Do the other guys know about him,” she deadpanned. We quickly disabused her of the notion but she gets “confused”—I’m not surprised why. It’s one of the most unusual domestic arrangements I’ve ever encountered
I was dying to ask Rod how four guys who are romantically linked get along, and of course, I did. Organization is key. They have weekly meetings that cover living issues, such as who does the grocery shopping, who is paying the bills (they have a joint checking account to cover all expenses, which are budgeted for), status of current projects, assignment of chores (such as garbage disposal, watering of the gardens, housecleaning, etc. Every month they meet to discuss capital projects such as renovations, major purchases, vacation planning. This is one of the most harmonious households I’ve ever seen. These are real normal guys, and that is reflected in the guests who attended this backyard gathering—parents, siblings, friends, colleagues, in-laws—about 60 in all—and it was a lovely afternoon.
The rice salad went over well, and I had a very long conversation with Trish, Rod’s boss who is as enthusiastic a foodie as I am. Rod, who puts up tomatoes, and makes his own jams, sent Trish and me home with jars of his homemade pickles, which are delicious, packed in red chilies, bay leaf, garlic and pickling spices. I left feeling as though I found four new friends. I look forward to seeing them again.
Wednesday night I invited Jean-Francois, one of my oldest friends, and his partner Jay for dinner. I found boneless, skinless chicken thighs at Trader Joe’s, bi-colored fresh corn, red pepper, and a Serrano chili (5 cents) at Limbo, the organic vegetable shop next door. I’d make rice, and marinate the chicken thighs in soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger, garlic, a little brown sugar, red chilli flakes, pepper and lemon zest. I stripped the corn off the cobs, and sautéed it in butter with the peppers. The rice would be cooked in chicken broth with shallots. There were fresh blueberries at Trader Joe’s—perfect for my favorite summer pie—fresh and cooked blueberries in a baked pie shell with crème fraiche (courtesy of Ron Silver, owner of BUBBY’S in New York).
Cooking in my new kitchen is terrific—I’ve got everything close at hand, and the space is vast in comparison to my New York apartment. I’m really going to feel spoiled cooking here. My handyman installed this pot rack which makes me realize I have way too many pots and pans!
Thursday night I attended my first social event—a cocktail party organized by a publishing trade association I just joined. We met in Portland’s trendy Pearl district at Oba, nuevo Latino restaurant, with a nice happy hour menu and I got my first look at the local publishing community. If New York’s publishing scene is moribund, it’s positively reeling out here. Business is simply terrible, and these people are working hard to keep their operations going. I did meet one thoroughly unpleasant guy who seems to think anyone from New York is a parvenue intent on wrecking the Portland real estate market for locals by overpaying for homes. I pointed out to him that the market was already much cheaper because of the economy, but he seemed to be tone deaf to his own rudeness, and I got away from him as quickly as possible. Everybody else was friendly and worth sharing a glass of wine or beer with. I also met an independent magazine sales rep who has done a few successful book ventures, and he has a promising sounding project that he wants to talk to me about. Aferwards Kent and Mike, my hosts and new friends, showed us Portland’s First Thursday, an art crawl event held every month. A lively combination of visual art, street entertainment, vogueing, and dining and drinking, First Thursday is a great way to get people to experience art, good and bad. Some of the art was intriguing, some appalling. But it’s a great way to get familiar with the Pearl neighborhood.
Friday, John Baker and Darren were my next culinary victims. Sara Watts, an old friend from New York, is a violinist who has lived in Portland for more than fifteen years. She called me on Friday morning, offering me a huge quantity of green figs which came from her back yard tree. I was thinking of a fig tart with cream, but I couldn’t find a recipe. I was about to decide on roasting them with a little honey and butter when I decided instead to make a clafouti. I’d never tried it with figs before, and it emerged from looking spectacular, the combination of the ripe fruit and custard made for a great pairing. The leftovers tasted great for breakfast the next morning.
Dinner was again, a simple meal—brined boneless pork chops with a pan sauce, green beans and pan-roasted tiny little white potatoes, plus a salad. I found this terrific Cotes du Rhone rose at Trader Joe’s that I’ve been drinking during the summer.
In between all this social whirl, I’ve been working non-stop on the house.
Steve, the handyman arrived on Tuesday, and we had a full slate of projects to plow through. He replaced the side-door to my garage and that now locks. He also installed my platter rack in the dining room in addition to the pot rack in the kitchen, which freed up a ton of storage space.
The useless broom cabinet between the guestroom and bathroom downstairs now has shelves, which make it perfect for a linen closet and other storage. I installed some new hardware in the bathroom, and a spice rack on the back of the basement door, which not only frees up more space in the kitchen, but keeps the herbs and spices in a dark, dry and cool space and are easily grabbed as I need them. The basement door now closes properly, and my back door locks without my having to use the deadbolt for security. We’ve got about another day’s work before all the stuff on my list is done (like replacing two basement windows that are broken and flimsy). I’ve got a gardener coming on Monday to remove a tree limb that is pressing down on a power line into the house. I want to drag away some of the mulch and dig some flower beds and get a few more things growing in the back yard. I’ll deal with other gardening and patio issues next year.
A nice highlight of my week was meeting Ivy Manning, a Portland-based former chef, restaurant reviewer, food, travel and now cookbook writer (THE FARM TO TABLE COOKBOOK and the upcoming THE ADAPTABLE FEAST: Satisfying Meals for the Vegetarians, Vegans and Omnivores at Your Table). We were introduced by my agent buddy Carole Bidnick. We agreed to meet late on Friday afternoon at a local pub—the Baghdad, not too far from my house. Ivy turned out to be a very cool lady. Dark haired and pretty, Ivy exudes the tough and independent manner of a woman who has survived in professional kitchens with chauvinistic male chefs. She’s got a great sense of humor and before long we were swapping war stories and food references over a few glasses of beer (beer is a religion in Portland). Ivy is going to introduce me to some culinary pals in Portland, or at least to the food folk she likes. Anyone who admires Deborah Madison (one of my favorite chefs and cookbook writers) is bound to become a good friend. Google Ivy Manning. Her blog is very entertaining food reading.
I’ve written about a sensational pizza in Portland—a Neapolitan-style pizza that comes from this small, non-descript and out of the way coffee shop on Gladstone Blvd., a few blocks from my house. I wandered in looking for a cup of coffee, and stayed for the terrific pizza. The owner started making it a year ago to shore up his flagging coffee business. He and his wife have installed a very pretty little covered garden in the back yard with ripening tomatoes in pots, and a spectacular herb garden with basil that gets added to the warm pizza as it travels from the oven to your table. This pizza has a superb and crunchy crust. The pizza sauce is likely to be the best I’ve ever tried. The only other adornment besides basil is the excellent mozzarella. I’d put this pizza up against any New York has to offer.
No food next week. DRIVING LESSONS!