an earthy sweetness

Sitting in the light at Sitka and Spruce calms me. It’s soft in there, the light limpid coming through the large windows. There’s nothing lovely outside to see, just the grimy grey sky and an alleyway out back of the Melrose Market. No one comes for the view. The room itself is the view. It’s essentially an enormous open kitchen with a wide workspace for preparing food. Coming out from the kitchen island is a high, long communal table, where people perch on stools to watch the cooking. In the short half of the L that is the room, there are five tables, of two and four. That’s it. It’s not big. It’s not dramatic. There are no spiral staircases or wine flights or mood lighting at the bar. It’s just a kitchen with tables in it. Sitting in Sitka and Spruce feels like going to the home of a really good cook, one willing to share the kitchen with you. Someday I dream of an oven that big, a kitchen that spacious. When our tiny kitchen feels too small, it’s time for lunch at Sitka and Spruce.

The food? Well, the food is fantastic. But it’s not food that’s meant to shout out, to draw attention to itself, to blare until you say, “Oh my god, who made this dish?” It’s daily food, the ingredients fresh that day made with focused attention, and a few ingredients you might not have in your home. When I sit with friends talking, we share small plates of sliced roasted beets with soft cheese, pistachios, and argan oil. Or juniper-cured steelhead with kohlrabi, black radish, and tarragon. Or thick yogurt with winter squash, pumpkin seeds, and Oregon honey. We always sigh happily when the empty plates are taken away.

This is the food I would be making myself for every meal, if I had access to those ingredients, the hours to prepare them carefully, and that kitchen. It’s the kind of food that really jazzes me and Danny. As we take a bite of the raw olives brined in salt or the chanterelles and sheep’s milk feta with sunchokes, we always look at each other and say, “We have to try this at home.” More and more, this is the kind of food we’re making and sharing here.

(It probably goes without saying, but I will say it anyway, that the good folks at Sitka and Spruce always take great care of me gluten-free. It’s not a problem there.)

A few weeks ago, we went to Sitka and Spruce with Lucy. It was a little date we three had together, before we went to the holiday carousel. She and Danny shared crusty bread with soft butter and sea salt. I had the olives. We shared a salad of crisp little radicchio leaves with shallots, persimmons, and fruity olive oil and a carrot salad with currants, green lentil sprouts, and bok choy. Danny tried the lamb shoulder with rockwell beans, chard, and a fried egg. There was black cod. There was a pork terrine that made Danny stop talking. The texture. Oh man, the texture. Lu and I shared the creme fraiche ice cream with honey. Danny loved his gateau basque.

Through it all, Lu sat up on her stool, eating bite after bite, talking with us. For a solid hour, I forgot she was 4. I forgot the baby days when I thought I would lose my mind saying three-word phrases and explaining things again and again. She was simply one of us, part of the conversation. And delightful.

At one point, she looked around to see the other folks in the restaurant: a table full of women celebrating a birthday with champagne, an older couple talking, a young couple on an early date, a few older folks in the corner. She looked at me and said, “Mama, why are there not more kids here to eat this delicious food?”

It was a good question.

Our daughter is growing up with good food in her life. She doesn’t eat meals like the one at Sitka and Spruce every day, although ours are pretty darned good. Instead, she knows that we like to be at the table, near the kitchen, talking about the tastes that make us grateful and inspire us to do more. We hope she’ll grow up grateful and inspired too.

And I hope she’ll remember all that light.

SQUASH JAM

On that visit to Sitka and Spruce, we had a little cheese plate to share, as we often do. The soft cheese was from Oregon. And on the plate with it was squash jam. Squash jam? I took one bite of the earthy sweetness with faint hints of cardamom and called over our favorite server. “Where? What? Tell me about squash jam.” Apparently, the chef had riffed on a recipe for squash jam by Claudia Roden. I haven’t found that recipe yet so Danny and I made up this one. Oh, Lucy’s eyes lit up when I told her we had Kurt’s cheese and squash jam for lunch today.

500 grams squash cubes, peel removed
300 grams organic cane sugar
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and scraped into the squash
4 cardamom pods
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar

Macerating the squash. Combine the squash, sugar, and vanilla scrapings in a bowl. Stir them together and cover. Let them sit overnight.

Making the jam. The next morning, the sugar, squash, and vanilla should be mingled and liquidy. Pour all of them into a large saucepan, along with the cardamom pods and apple cider vinegar. Set the saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until all the ingredient mingle and combine, the liquid reducing, the sugars thickening everything. When it feels like jam — about 20 minutes — turn off the heat. (Don’t cook the jam longer than that, or you’ll have squash candy. It should be just a touch more liquidy in the pan than you think it should be. It tightens off the heat.) Fish out the cardamom pods. Move the jam to a wide bowl and let it cool.

This should store in the refrigerator well for about 2 weeks.

Makes about 1 cup of jam.