Ever Heard of Foodie Thursday?

Well, now you have.

It’s been a busy autumn chez Sparks. No excuses: in the flurry, I flat-out forgot to put up my food post on Tuesday. Sigh. I didn’t stop being food-obsessed, just being on schedule. So here we go, better late than never. I would give you a big silly grin, but yeah, my mouth is full again. Photo: Blue Bouquet

What I meant to say on that long-ago-seeming-day-which-was-Tuesday, was that I do like this time of year in particular for its masses of officially sanctioned excuses for partying. There are of course the big national and international celebrations of things spanning from Halloween/All Saints/Dia de los Muertos to Thanksgiving, Diwali, Christmas, Hanukkah, and the various New Years; in my family, five out of the six of us have winter birthdays as well. It’s not that my family and I are in any way averse to celebrating with a good meal, a party, or any other excuse for eating and drinking good stuff at the drop of a hat, but it’s extra nice when nobody else questions the need for such an occasion either.

My parents upped the ante this winter by both entering the glorious ranks of octogenarian excellence, so since my three sisters and I don’t all live close to them anymore, we’d long since all agreed it made sense to look toward next summer (2015) for a family get-together to mark their ascensions to this great new height. All the same, nobody in our clan has any respect for leaving an excuse for a party just lying there unused. So Sisters 1 and 3, who do live near Mom and Dad in Seattle, helped them plan a big party on Mom’s birthday weekend so that our parents could have their local siblings, nieces and nephews, and a few special friends together. I made up the digital invitations, since I could do that from my remote location, and because I’ve long done such design tidbits for family events as a way to be involved when I couldn’t otherwise be on hand to participate. But our Seattle sisters did the yeoman’s work on the whole thing.

We kids did up the ante a little, though. Sister 4 and her husband sent an email to the other three of us a couple of months ago, announcing that they had bought plane tickets to fly over from Norway for the November party and surprise Mom and Dad. We sisters were surprised, too! My husband, with three concerts and more rehearsals to conduct on either immediate side of the party date, couldn’t get away, but with a batch of saved air miles, I could, so I planned to fly up from Texas and join in the fun. Once all of our tickets were bought and the wheels set in motion, the real challenge was not only to see if there were any small things 4 and I could do from our bases of operation but to see if we and our partners could keep a secret for seven or eight weeks, a dubious probability at the best of times with our talkative bunch.Photo: Pink and Green Bouquet

We did. We let one of Mom’s sisters in on the secret so that she could help get our parents in the right place at the right time when the day arrived, and my spouse’s parents knew, because they were invited too, but despite a couple of close calls, nobody slipped up irrevocably. Part of the larger plan, once we’d decided to add in this surprise element, was that there would be an immediate-family-only lunch on Mom’s actual birthday at Sister 3’s house. Dad, Mom, Auntie and Uncle, and sisters 1 and 3 were to have a nice, low-key luncheon date to mark the day and wrap up any last-minute details for the bigger open house party the next day.

Sister 4 and her husband and I flew into Seattle on Thursday the 6th. It was wonderful to have a reunion of the four sisters, our first in at least a couple of years, and to convene a few other members of the immediate family—3’s husband and one son, with the other son flying in from college on Friday—that night and to laugh up our collective sleeves over our plot. In keeping with the family tradition of combining food with fun, this first evening was spent at 3’s house, slurping bowls of a beautiful, creamy winter sweet potato, kale, pasta, and sausage soup (based on Martha Stewart’s recipe) while taste-testing a couple of good single-malts the Norwegian contingent had picked up on a duty-free spree en route.

On the 7th, Mom’s birthday, we got lunch ready and in the oven and fridge and then spent a little while nervously skulking past curtained windows to escape any unexpectedly early arrivals’ discovery, and as the parental entourage at last approached, three of us ducked into the back bedroom, where we giggled like little kids and perched on the bed to avoid making the creaky hardwood floor give away our presence. Auntie got Mom settled into her favorite armchair so we wouldn’t have to explain her absence at the next day’s party as the result of an aneurism, and we finally strolled out to say Hello to our startled parents. Their faces remained in virtually the same blankly surprised expressions for a fairly lengthy, attenuated moment.Photo: Mom's 80th Birthday Lunch

Lunch broke that spell. We feasted on marvelously simple steak, lemon-dill oven-roasted salmon, salt-baked potatoes, green salad with a fresh blend of herbs and creamy lemony dressing, green beans, and buttered peasant bread. Classic, delicious, and with a handful of their kids on hand to help, an easy way to feed our parents well on a meaningful day. We worked a bit more on the details of Saturday’s open house event, but 1 and 3 had covered all bases so thoroughly that we were all able to make an early evening of it and rest up for the main event.

Sister 3 had found a wonderful venue, a community center run by the parks service in a beautifully renovated vintage power station right next door to the church where our dad had grown up. All five of Mom’s siblings and Dad’s only sib, his brother, and all of their partners, were on tap to come. So did some of the sibs’ kids, and even a handful of grandkids joined the gang; with the friends who came, we totaled just over fifty in attendance. We saw many relatives we’d not seen in years, many of them as surprised as our parents at seeing us there like long-distance apparitions. I think I can safely say that the party was everything Mom had wanted, that Dad was also happy, and that we all felt pretty chuffed at pulling off a great success, especially at not blowing the surprise.Photo: Birthday Buffet

But again, food was central to the grandness of the day, and once more, that was thanks to the wise planning and [literally] tasteful choices made by our Seattle sisters. The buffet spread’s main dish stars were ginger beef and sweet walnut prawns from our favorite local  Chinese restaurant, accompanied by a wide range of finger foods and sweets, many of them bought ready-made from various shops and stores. We had just about enough food on hand to feed 250 guests. So we kept up that family tradition, too. And we all left the tables full and fulfilled.

Who knows what we’ll get up to next summer. Only sure that it will include much eating and drinking. And probably lots of childish giggling and telling secrets, which I think are a mighty nice lagniappe for the whole meal, whatever it is.

Foodie Tuesday: By the Beautiful Sea

Certainly one of the particular pleasures of this summer’s travels was for a coastal native like me to get back to the water’s edges and indulge in quantities of fresh seafoods of the kinds I have always loved. Not a bad opportunity, either, to develop some new affections in the vast ocean of seafood options. So yes, of course I ate fish, shellfish, seaweed, and other delectable dainties from the depths as often as I could manage. Spending time in the familiar haunts of Stockholm and the Pacific Northwest, I was swimming in deliciousness.Photo: Chinese Sushi in Stockholm

There were, in both locales, a few much-needed refueling stops for Asian seafood treats, since both places are rich in the resources and have long since embraced the influences of those also-rich cultures to make fine use of the wealth, so sushi and Lee’s sweet walnut prawns were on the agenda from the beginning. I can’t think of any kind of sushi that makes me happier than delicate, pristinely fresh salmon—an ingredient introduced to sushi culture by Norwegians, I gather, so I guess I feel a certain genetic impulse to put this meeting-of-cultures on my plate—nigirizushi. So my partner and I devoured salmon nigiri in quantity on the trip, but I also happily tested a few different sorts of makizushi, like Ichiban’s Salmon Lemon Roll, a refreshingly simple kind of maki.Photo: Dungeness Mac & Cheese

There were those variations on crab mac & cheese I mentioned before, and if anyone puts together two such huge addictions of mine as macaroni and cheese and Dungeness crab had just better get out of my way when I catch sight of the table. The versions I had this summer did nothing to slow me in my pursuit of such treasure, but as the aforementioned components both loom so large in my heart’s and stomach’s affections, neither did they hamper my continued mental tweaking of said dishes, and as I looked upon the photo for this post, I was moved further to contemplate joining my crab M&C lust with that for the classic and justifiably ubiquitous pairing of browned butter and sage, so you can expect to hear some groans of overindulgent happiness coming out of my kitchen sometime in the not too distant future when I get around to embracing that inspiration.Photo: West Seattle Fish & Chips

Fish and chips are, of necessity, a part of my seafood pilgrimages as well. As with these other treats, fish and chips have so many fantastic varieties possible, even before you get to the chef-specific fiddling of seasonings and sides, that it’s almost a pity there’s no way to eat every kind on offer. Will it be cod today, pollock or plaice, halibut? Salmon? Smoked cod? So many choices, so little time. I like a good light, crispy beer batter, but most end up being too doughy and heavy-handed in reality for my complete approval, so I’m more drawn to crunchier versions, whether they’re crumb- or cornmeal-based or spring from a dreamily delicate application of tempura. One of the standouts on this journey was when my parents took the two of us to a local shop in West Seattle, where we not only shared massive servings of fantastic, moist and tender and crunchy-coated wild cod but were given cabbage slaw (in a vinegar dressing) as a gift side dish by a beautiful and kind-hearted proprietress. Between that atmosphere of generous hospitality and the snappy-crusted fresh fish, the place won my vote as favorite in this summer’s fish-&-chips derby.Photo: Scallop & Mango Ceviche

I managed to go in entirely new directions on occasion, as well. Probably the favorite such dish that comes to mind just now would have to be the scallop-mango ceviche my sister and I shared when we went with my husband to a venerable but still terrific restaurant on Alki, that long and lovely public beach in West Seattle where Elliott Bay provides the blue and sparkling underpinning to a grand view of downtown Seattle’s waterfront. Beloved company and glorious weather were guaranteed to make it a worthy event, but the ceviche did its part very well indeed, too. It was a relatively simple melange of diced bell peppers and red onion and scallops and mango in a very light lime-cilantro dressing. If I had any desire to change the dish in the slightest it might be to eliminate the green pepper from the mix since it was just a tiny bit strong compared to the sweet scallops and bright mango, yet not quite piquant enough (as the onion was) to serve as a complementary spark. But let’s be honest. Did that slow down my eating or diminish my enjoyment of that refreshing little appetizer? No, it most certainly did not. If I replicate the dish someday, there will probably be no green bell pepper, and for that matter, I’d be more likely to pop in a sprinkling of red pepper flakes for the spice than to add raw onion, but that combination of tender scallops and juicy mango was just the sunny splash the day required and also provided useful ideas for my future culinary machinations. Enough said.Photo: Shrimp Pizza al Forno

Last among today’s reminiscence revels is shrimp pizza. Americans might not be quite so familiar with this sea creature as a great pizza topping as other nationals have been, but once tried, it’s kind of irresistible in its own way. My spousal person and I derive much of our fondness for the item in question from multiple happy visits in years past to a kind of down-at-heel looking pizzeria in the central train station in Stockholm, where a couple of swell Italian brothers fired up their (too-) well-kept secret wood oven and made the perfect Neapolitan crusts, lightly scorched and melting underneath a little light San Marzano tomato sauce, a nice gooey coating of fresh mozzarella, and heaps of candy-sweet pink shrimp with (unless my slightly lachanophobic husband remembered to forbid it) a dash of oregano over the top. Alas, the brothers have since packed up their oven and gone off to greener pastures, but in a bit of serendipitous sorrow on the afternoon of our discovery, we wandered down the hill from “our” apartment in the opposite direction to a restaurant we hadn’t revisited in quite some time and discovered that they, too, made a dandy version of this pie. Theirs is embellished with a little prosciutto and some mushrooms, which prove to be perfectly friendly companions to their little coral-colored shellfish pals on pizza.

What does all of this prove? Nothing you didn’t know already. I am an avid pursuer of food. Seafoods of many spanking fresh and tasty sorts rank high on the list of favorites among my food loves. And travel combines the increased access to those things that a coastal kid stranded inland in Texas craves at times with the splendors of the travel itself, that immersion in a different culture that suits me as much as it does my taste buds. Ahhh, so.