Easy Entertaining

Hosting a holiday hors d’oeuvre party is a great way to enjoy time with friends

Written by Braiden Rex-Johnson
Photograph by Kate Baldwin
Food styling by Christy Nordstrom

alk to her on the phone and you’ll immediately discover Ballard resident Nicole Aloni’s passion: easy entertaining. “Entertaining is essential
to life,” says the Seattle transplant (from Los Angeles)
and former “caterer to the stars.”

Aloni, who has catered the Academy Awards four times and once prepared a state luncheon for Queen Elizabeth II, shares organizational tips, menu-planning guidelines and a plethora of recipes in her two books, Secrets from a Caterer’s Kitchen: The Indispensable Guide for Planning a Party (HP Books, $18.95) and Cooking for Company: All the Recipes You Need for Simple, Elegant Entertaining at Home (HP Books, $18.95).

An appetizer party (instead of a full-blown dinner party) is an easy alternative for holiday entertaining.

“Where you might find a three-course menu hard to execute, hors d’oeuvres offer the same adventure in bite-size portions,” she reasons.

Here are some of Aloni’s tips for the perfect hors d’oeuvres party:

  • Indulge in the decor.
  • Choose a thematic cocktail or punch.
  • Send a really creative invitation, which builds anticipation.
  • “You can even suggest the flavor of the evening before guests hit the front door by lighting the entryway with glowing luminaria, piping appropriate music outdoors or sprinkling flower petals on the walkways,” she says.
  • Focus your energy and attention on a couple by-the-piece items you make yourself, such as stuffed mushrooms or beef satay.
  • Select specialties you’ve made before and enjoy preparing, perhaps a family recipe or something from your ethnic heritage.
  • If you don’t want to make your own, bulk items are easy to purchase at the growing number of upscale grocery and specialty-food stores in the Seattle area, such as Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s, Central Market at Shoreline and Metropolitan Markets.
  • A good rule to follow when planning your appetizer party is to offer 12 to 15 bites per person, Aloni advises.

The holidays come only once a year—so here’s to a groaning board full of fancy, festive hors d’oeuvres.

Contributing editor Braiden Rex-Johnson is the author of the Pike Place Public Market Seafood Cookbook (Ten Speed Press).

Find more information about chef Nicole Aloni on her Secrets from a Caterer’s Kitchen Web site, secretsfromacaterer.com.

Great Grilling

Local chefs Thierry Rautureau of Rover’s and Jason McClure of Sazerac share their secrets for summer barbecues

Story by Braiden Rex-Johnson
Photography by Alex Hayden

My memories of childhood barbecues are equal parts fear and dread. Though my father was a distinguished surgeon, when it came to household tasks he refused to read instruction manuals. A big box arrived at our suburban home one day and, after a long afternoon of sweaty brows and taking the Lord’s name in vain, my father emerged from the garage with a fire-engine-red barbecue.

Dad wheeled his new toy into the middle of the yard and fired it up. In the days before gas barbecue grills were ubiquitous, this required rolls of newspaper, charcoal briquettes and copious amounts of lighter fluid. If everything didn’t catch fire immediately, my father and ever-helpful little brother would simply add more fuel. My male relatives’ pyromaniac tendencies seemed like an invitation to disaster.

Whenever my father announced that it was a good night for a barbecue, I stood yards away. As an adult, I continued to keep my distance from barbecues and outdoor grills. And what I’ve noticed—as I stood back and watched—is that the popularity of grilling is, well, exploding.

I didn’t have to look far to find two avid grilling fans—and professional chefs—who were more than happy to share their passion for great grilling: Thierry Rautureau, owner and chef at Rover’s in Madison Valley, and Jason McClure, executive chef at the ever-sizzling Sazerac in downtown Seattle.

Rover’s Thierry Rautureau

The gregarious “Chef in the Hat,” Rautureau turns summer grilling into a family-and-friends affair but likes to keep things simple.

“My family loves to dine alfresco and we don’t limit grilling to July 4th or Bastille Day,” he says. “Meats, poultry, fish and vegetables are on our home barbecue almost nightly. Entertaining outdoors is one of the best things about living in the Pacific Northwest.”

Rautureau likes to create a summer mini-buffet by visiting the local farmers’ market, then grilling up his “finds.” One favorite meal is Grilled Pork Chops with Dijon Mustard, Asparagus and Walla Walla Sweets. The chef marinates the chops in the refrigerator overnight in a simple rub made of Dijon mustard, olive oil and black pepper. Thanks to the marinade, the chops stay tender and juicy. Rautureau pairs the pork with Walla Walla onions and fresh asparagus spears, marinated in olive oil and fresh thyme before grilling.

Sazerac’s Jason McClure

My second grilling expert, Jason McClure, teaches a grilling class as part of Sazerac’s “Little Bit of Lovin’” cooking-class series. His next class is scheduled for Saturday, August 19, at 2 p.m. Sazerac’s summer menu will feature grilled seasonal local foods such as house-made sausage and wild salmon.

McClure generously shared his recipe for Grilled Stone Fruit Brochettes with Buttermilk Ice Cream as well as some of his “Sazy” grilling tips. The chef says that grilling is more fun if you are organized and have everything you’ll need prepped before you start.

A few of McClure’s tips:

• Start with a hot, clean, well-lubricated grill. This prevents proteins from sticking.
• Dry spice rubs jazz up simple cuts of meat, seafood and poultry.
• Soaked wood chips or chunks, such as mesquite, hickory, alder, apple, oak, cherry or pecan, flavor foods with an earthy, smoky flavor.

Pearls of Wisdom

September brings a fresh crop of oysters to local restaurants and fish markets.

Written by Braiden Rex-Johnson
Photographs by Kate Baldwin
Styling by Christy Nordstrom

Over the past two years, an East Coast oyster raised in Northwest waters has won the hearts of oyster aficionados from Seattle to Los Angeles, Chicago to New York City. Crassostrea virginica, also known as the Eastern or Virginica oyster, is crisp and briny with a hit of strong, mineral-laden salt.

Native to several Atlantic regions, these oysters were once the mainstay of the U.S. oyster industry. Production here started in the early 1900s, when a large quantity was grown in Willapa Bay for the oyster-hungry San Francisco market. In 1917, for unknown reasons, the stocks died out.

Thanks to improved technology and understanding of the oyster organism itself, however, Taylor Shellfish Farms has been commercially distributing this species for the past two years. Totten Inlet oysters take three to five years to reach a minimum market size of 3 1/4 inches, which is deemed ideal for sweetness and complexity of flavor.

“Many who have tasted it say it’s the best oyster they’ve ever eaten,” Taylor says of his Totten Inlet virginicas. “They’re mild compared to the Pacific and not as crunchy as the Kumamoto. They’re not overly briny or salty, but there’s a richness and something in the flavor that adds dimension. The algaes in Totten Inlet really complement the virginicaoyster.”

The new crop of Virginicas is available this month, so September is the perfect time to sample them. Locally, you can find Totten Inlet oysters at most fresh seafood markets, as well as oyster bars and seafood restaurants such as Ray’s Boathouse, Elliott’s Oyster House & Restaurant, the Oceanaire Seafood Room, Shucker’s and, of course, Union.

Know Your Oysters

Five main species—Olympia, Kumamoto, Pacific, European Flat and Eastern—call inlets, bays and coves in the Northwest home, and most are available September through March. Because oysters vary depending on where they are raised, oysters are often marketed under the name of their home waters rather than simply by species name.

Olympia (Ostrea lurida and Ostraola conchaphila)

Native to the West Coast, quarter-sized Olympias are slow growing and take three to four years to reach maturity. They are highly coveted among oyster aficionados for their sweet meat and light, buttery flavor, and, thanks to their small size, “Olys” are considered the perfect oyster for first-timers.

Kumamoto (Crassostrea sikamea)

Slightly larger than Olympias, Kumamotos are distinctive for their more deeply cupped, highly fluted shells. Native to Japan, “kumos” are noted for their delicate, fruity, almost cucumberlike flavor.

Pacific (Crassostrea gigas)

Hearty Pacific oysters are mild, sweet and rich-tasting. Originally from Japan, the Pacific is now the most important commercial oyster species in the region and constitutes 99 percent of West Coast oyster production, according to a 2004 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study.

European Flat (Ostrea edulis)

European flats were once the most widely cultured oyster in Europe and are known as Belons in France. Optimally 3 to 3 1/2 inches in size, European Flats are round, flat oysters with a distinctive salty-metallic (coppery) finish that some feel is an acquired taste.

Virginica (Crassostrea Virginica)

Native to New England, Middle Atlantic, Chesapeake and South Atlantic, these oysters were the first East Coast species grown commercially in Washington state. Virginicas combine a clean, briny, smooth sweetness with a pronounced mineral finish.

Buy and Cellar

Northwest wines to keep for 10 years or more

Story by Andy Perdue
Photography by Hank Drew

In the Old World, top-tier reds are expected to be aged a decade or more. Great Bordeaux often are so tightly wound, they’re just becoming drinkable in 10 years. In New World wine regions such as the West Coast however, grapes tend to be picked riper and flavors are plush sooner.

Aging wines can be tricky; there’s a fine line between sublime and over the hill. Select wines with balanced fruit, acidity and (in reds) tannin to give wines a better chance of aging gracefully. Avoid high-alcohol monsters or vintages whose weather patterns make cellaring a precarious proposition. For example, 2003 was an extremely hot year in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and many of the resulting wines were California-like with jammy fruit, blistering alcohol and little of the subtlety typical of Oregon pinot noirs. In Washington, while 1998 was hailed as a great vintage at the time, those reds are generally falling apart eight years later. Meanwhile, the more balanced 1999s are now becoming really interesting.

Successfully aging wine means proper conditions. Your best bet is a climate-controlled cellar. If you have a basement that stays cool year-round, that’s a good option. If your home has central air, a closet can serve you well. Or you can rent space from one of several wine storage facilities. Avoid garages and the top of your refrigerator.
Here are a few Northwest wines that should taste delicious in 2016. For some real fun, buy a case and open one bottle each year. Take careful notes so you can see how the wine progresses.

Woodward Canyon Winery 2002 Old Vines cabernet sauvignon
Columbia Valley, $75

Rick Small has been making cellar-worthy wines since 1981. A few years ago, I tasted through 19 years of the Old Vines cabs. The best of the bunch was from 1983, so Small proved his wines stand up well to the ravages of time. This red will likely be in the midst of its prime in 2016.

Three Rivers Winery 2003 Champoux Vineyard cabernet sauvignon
Columbia Valley, $50

Winemaker Holly Turner uses grapes from what arguably is the No. 1 or No. 2 vineyard in Washington. Champoux (pronounced “shampoo”) is high in the Horse Heaven Hills south of Prosser. Expect this big red to be peaking in a decade.

FidÈlitas Wines 2002 Optu
Columbia Valley, $40

Owner/winemaker Charlie Hoppes is closing in on his 20th harvest in Washington, and he knows every row of every worthy vineyard in the state. This Bordeaux-style red tends to be plush and approachable upon release but still has the backbone of acidity and tannin to help it go the distance.

Elk Cove Vineyards 2004 Windhill pinot noir
Willamette Valley, $38

The Campbell family has been crafting balanced, age-worthy wines since the mid-1970s. This elegant single-vineyard pinot noir is beautiful now and has the fruit and balance to be very interesting in 10 years.

Barnard Griffin 2004 semillon
Columbia Valley, $14

Most of the time, we don’t think of white wines as age-worthy, but semillon is an exception. One of two noble white grapes of Bordeaux (along with sauvignon blanc), semillon only gets more interesting with time. This offering from one of Washington’s biggest family owned wineries is tasty now and should be magnificent at age 12.

Made with Love

Holiday gifts are extra special when you create them yourself

Written by Braiden Rex-Johnson
Photograph by Kate Baldwin
Food styling by Christy Nordstrom

This holiday season, forget the flowers. Fling the fruitcake. Forgo the Godiva.

Instead, as Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa approach, consider making one-of-a-kind food gifts. For both creator and recipient, homemade holiday gifts warm the heart and satisfy the soul.

They are the perfect solution for people who like to put on an apron, dust off the food processor, crank up the iPod and get cookin’. Giveable goodies rival the treats you see (and often covet) in specialty-food stores and online catalogs—and are packaged with a personal touch.

Homemade gifts provide a memorable way to get the kids or grandkids involved in fun, educational kitchen activities that may turn into holiday traditions. And small, easy-to-make items are good tokens for hostesses, hairdressers, co-workers and other acquaintances when a more extravagant store-bought gift seems like too much of a good thing.
No run-of-the-mill shortbread cookies or banana-nut loaves will you find among my giveable goodies. Chocolate-hazelnut butter rivals Nutella, the famous cocoa-hazelnut spread, originally from Italy, that is used as a sandwich spread or crepe filling in 75 countries worldwide. Candied pecans are great to eat out of hand or sprinkle on salads.

Homemade coffee liqueur serves as a perfect after-supper sipper, easy topping for vanilla ice cream, or warming addition to mugs of steamed milk. Old-fashioned pumpkin butter finds its perfect partner with fluffy buttermilk biscuits or the Thanksgiving turkey, and the addition of three forms of ginger (fresh, ground and candied) and two forms of lemon (zest and juice) raises the flavor to new heights. Homemade cranberry sauce spiked with dark rum and dried sour cherries is a tangy-sweet addition to any hostess’s holiday table. And an authoritative spice rub turns everyday chicken breasts into an international experience.

Executive pastry chef Jessica Campbell, of the Yarrow Bay Grill in Kirkland, is such a fan of giveable goodies that she’s taught a cooking class on the subject for the past two years. During the hands-on class, Campbell not only helped us prepare five food gifts but showed us inspiring ways to package our creations.

The chef scooped candied pecans into cellophane bags, which she tied with colorful ribbons and tagged. Jars of chocolate-hazelnut butter were decorated with die-cut holiday stickers and tied with sumptuous satin or velvet ribbons.

The act of giving homemade goodies shows family, friends and acquaintances you took the time and cared enough to prepare something with your own hands from your home kitchen. This year, why not say “Happy Holidays” to one and all in the most delectable, heartwarming way possible?

Contributing editor Braiden Rex-Johnson is the author of the Pike Place Public Market Seafood Cookbook (Ten Speed Press).