mostly, the laughter

renee's book- renee and the oysters

I have a not-so-secret crush on Renee Erickson. It’s okay. Danny understands. It’s not a romantic crush — my heart rests in the heart of my darling husband who grounds me. Besides, like most people near Seattle who love food, Danny has a crush on Renee Erickson too.

If you don’t know her yet, Renee Erickson is a chef and restaurateur who has calmly helped to create the feeling of the Seattle restaurant scene today: collaborative, not overly fussy, full of good cheer, and kick-ass delicious. Renee’s food is rooted in her heartfelt desire to gather good folks around a table set with food. And on that table? Pacific octopus salad with grilled beets, chermoula, and shaved fennel. Harissa-rubbed roasted lamb with yogurt and olive oil. Marinated olives with thyme, garlic, and lemon peel. Grilled zucchini with a pickled tomato salad and cilantro vinaigrette. There’s probably a clutch of chilled bottles of rosé from Corsica too. From Jim Henkens’ stunning, immediate photographs in A Boat, a Whale & a Walrus: Menus and Stories, you get the clear sense: Renee knows how to live.

renee's book- book

Renee’s food is simple, direct, and so delicious you want to lick the plate. Each meal we’ve eaten at The Whale Wins has stayed with us for months after. Sometimes Danny looks at me and says, “Remember that chicken?” Chicken slathered in harissa and roasted in a wood-fired oven, the skin crackling, delivered to our table with a stack of napkins. That was a fine anniversary meal. Sadly, Renee has closed Boat Street Cafe since the book was published — only because she’s opening another two places in Seattle and needed to focus her energies on them — but we’ve eaten many a meal in the dappled light near the front window, happy.

I wrote a piece about Renee’s restauarant career and her ethos of food and family for the Washington Post. It was published back in December, yet I haven’t shared her cookbook with you here. Time to take care of that.

renee's book- whale wins

A Boat, a Whale & a Walrus: Menus and Stories — named after her first three restaurants — is a chef’s tale written for home cooks. Our friend Jess Thomson, a writer you must read now, co-wrote the book, helping Renee to translate her passionate ideas into recipes scaled for home kitchens. Every recipe we have made from this book works.

I’ve been writing a life of food for more than a decade now. I’m still amazed. The longer I’m at this, the more and more interested I am in the kind of humble food that gathers us all to the table. Boiled crab, just caught in the Sound that day, squeezed lemon wedges, newspapers spread across the table, maybe some fresh mayonnaise. Hands reaching, voices singing and interrupting, forks hitting glasses, the laughter. Mostly, the laughter. The food? It’s important. The food is what makes it all happen. Let’s pay attention when we cook it, then let go of the need for it all to be good, and just eat.

renee's book- blue water

With all the savory foods that make me want to sit down and laugh at the table with friends — eating messy spot prawns with piment d’esplette — Renee’s baking recipes call me back to the book. Her mother, Shirlee, was the baker at the original Boat Street Cafe, and her personality is still in these recipes. As Renee describes her: “…organized, sweet, and stable, and spicy only when necessary.” That’s a good description of the baking recipes in the book too. Feel like making something right now? Long sunny morning, friends over, nowhere to go? Let’s make some cream scones.

renee's book- cream scones

gluten-free cream scones, adapted from A Boat, a Whale & a Walrus: Menus and Stories

Cream scones are just lovely, really. Traditional scones, made with cold butter and buttermilk, require a little pulsing in the food processor or cutting fat into flour by hand with a gentle touch. Certainly, they’re not hard to make. But these cream scones are even easier. Blend the dry ingredients, add little flecks of currants and enough lemon zest to give the mouth a pucker, then pour in cream and slowly move them together. That’s about it. 

Except, there’s a little trick, guaranteed to make your gluten-free scones even better. Freeze the scones before you bake them. That’s right. Freeze them. This gives those wedges a little hesitation in the oven, a beat or two of baking the outside before the heat reaches the insides. That means they hold their shape. You can, as I’ve written the recipe here, freeze them for a bit before popping them in a hot oven, if you want to feed a visiting friend scones before she has to leave. Or, if you plan ahead, you make these in the evening, heat up the oven in the morning, and have warm scones for breakfast without doing much at all. 

515 grams (about 3 1/2 cups) gluten-free all-purpose flour 
100 grams (about 1/2 cup) organic cane sugar
2 tablespoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup dried currants
grated zest of 2 large lemons
2 cups heavy cream (for dairy-free alternative, see the note below)
1 large egg, beaten (optional)
2 tablespoons demerara sugar (optional)

Make the batter. Whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Add the currants and lemon zest. Stir to combine.

Make a well in the center of the flour and pour in the cream. Using a small rubber spatula, stir from the center of the liquid, slowly, until you have incorporated all the flour from the sides of bowl. The dough should be shaggy and a little rough hewn, not a smooth ball. Pat a small amount of flour onto the palm of your hands and move the dough around in the bowl, patting it a bit, until the dough holds together.

Form the scones. Cut the ball of dough into 2 pieces. Put one piece of dough down onto a cutting board lightly dusted with the gluten-free all-purpose flour. Gently, fold the back edge of the dough onto the front edge of the dough. (If the dough is sticky, lift it with a bench scraper.) Turn the dough 90°. Fold the front edge onto the back edge of the dough. Continue this a few more times until the dough has been folded onto itself a few times. This will help to make the scones flaky. Form the dough into a disc, about 6 inches across and 1 inch tall. Cut the disk into 6 equal pieces. Put them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Repeat the process with the remaining ball of dough.

Freeze the scones. Put the baking sheet into the freezer until the oven has fully come to temperature, at least 15 minutes.

Prepare to bake. Heat the oven to 400°. When the oven has reached temperature, wait another 10 minutes for the oven to truly be heated. Take the scones out of the freezer. Brush the tops of the scones with the beaten egg and shower them with a bit of the demerara sugar. (You can bake the scones without either one of these and still have delicious scones.)

Bake the scones. Bake the scones until they are browned and quite firm to the touch, 15 to 20 minutes. Let them cool on the baking sheet for 10 minutes, then serve immediately with good butter and jam.

Makes 12 scones.

Make these Danny’s way. If cream is mean to your system, as it is for Danny, you can make these dairy-free with a few small adjustments. First of all, make coconut cream. Put a can of coconut milk in the refrigerator overnight. The next day, just before you make the scones, remove the lid of the coconut milk. Spoon out the thick coconut cream from the top 2/3 of the can into a large bowl. (The coconut water should be on the bottom of the can.) Whisk the cold coconut cream until it is thick and rich. Add it to the flour mix where you would add the cream in the recipe. This might be enough for you. However, I found that making the scones with coconut milk instead of cream can leave the scones a little crumbly. So, I add 3 or 4 tablespoons of vegetable shortening to the flour and work the fat into the flour before adding the coconut milk. This makes for a flakier scone. And hey! Now they are vegan scones.

satisfying, every time

potato salad- strawberries

I’m kind of a goober, really. Even though I exult at the first unfurlings of spring green leaves, and feel deeply the fleeting beauty of the red leaves of fall, my body seems to feel it should always be summer. This is particularly strange because a) I don’t always love the heat of summer — I’ve become one of those Pacific Northwest weenies who stifle when the heat is above 83° — and b) I grew up in Southern California, where even in childhood I wondered when a definitive change of season would finally occur. There, it was a pleasant 65° to a sweltering 108°, with no real shift in light or time. Just sunny skies and smog, warm to horrendously hot. I love living in Washington, where the season drips in slowly, then the first liquid light of spring awakens every plant and person it splashes on. I can no longer imagine living in a place where it is perpetually summer.

Still, there’s this deeply primal part of me that breathes when the strawberries finally come to the farmers’ market and all the trees — every alder lining the drive from Lu’s afternoon school to the cherry tree in our backyard — is fully leaved again. The radishes from the garden have a peppery crunch. The peonies with their layers like petticoats about to be shed are showing off. Our trampoline gets daily use, just after dinner. “Ah,” my body says. “Winter — that awful drone of a time when the earth refuses to offer up smells — it’s finally gone and a memory. Maybe it will never come back again!”

(For the record, Danny loves winter. He’s always disappointed when we have another mild time here, one without a three-day snow storm that knocks down power lines and leaves us in the dark. He grew up in Colorado. I grew up in Southern California. It’s pretty easy to do that math.)

I’m almost 49. I do know that winter returns every year. But for now, it’s summer. It’s time to start talking about potato salad.

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