by Susan Hamilton
Here in the Inland Northwest, as well as in our surrounding region, we are blessed with an abundance of food that inspires culinary creativity. The versatile and flavorful cuisine found in the Northwest reflects our area's bounty of fresh foods. And autumn's harvest brings us a variety of vegetables, fruits, mushrooms, legumes and herbs.
"Our region is home to some of the most compelling native ingredients found anywhere in the world," states chef and writer Greg Atkinson in his Northwest Essentials Cookbook. "The foods that thrive here in the Northwest are more than items on a list of ingredients; they are points of departure," he adds. "They are almost, but not quite, the raison d' & ecirc;tre for the recipes they inspire."
Apples -- Crisp, juicy Washington apples are a staple for Inland Northwesterners. From mid-August to early November this year, about 8.8 million boxes of apples will be harvested in our state. Most of these apples are grown in the eastern foothills of the Cascades, where rich lava-ash soil and plentiful sunshine contribute to their luscious taste. Locally, Green Bluff farms just north of Spokane are known for their tasty apples -- with 37 varieties at 14 farms. Red and golden delicious, Gala, Fuji, Gravenstein, Criterion, Jonagold, Macintosh, Spartan and Winesap are but a few of the types available.
Atkinson says apples are one of the most versatile foods in the kitchen, performing well in soups, salads, entrees and desserts. Local chefs like to take advantage of this quintessential Northwest fruit.
Chef-owner Karla Graves of South Hill's intimate Paprika Caf & eacute; says Green Bluff is a great resource. She uses Green Bluff apples in two of her fall menu items -- a green salad with apple chips and pomegranate seeds and a grilled duck breast with caramelized shallots served over savory pumpkin bread pudding with turnips and apples in cider. The greens, shallots, pumpkin and turnips Graves uses in these dishes are also locally grown.
"I like to use the best products available and support our local farmers as much as possible," explains Shilo Pierce, the new executive chef at Luna. At the upper South Hill neighborhood bistro, Pierce features a first plate of crostini with local apples and pears, pancetta and warm cambozola. A salad of baby spinach with toasted hazelnuts, goat cheese and Green Bluff's Harvest House cider vinaigrette is on Luna's current menu, as is a main plate of grilled pork loin chop, roasted steamer potato and braised cabbage and apple-currant compote.
Innovative chef and owner Michael Waliser of Caf & eacute; 5-Ten is offering a special of "the original" double-bone pork chop with tart apple and sage bread pudding and rosemary cider vinegar sauce. The apples and pork originate in our state and the rosemary is from Penrith Farms in Newport, Wash.
Potatoes -- The earthy flavor and soft texture of potatoes is a comforting autumn ingredient that lends itself well to a variety of treatments. Olsen Farms of Colville grows gourmet potatoes that are favored by many discerning area chefs. The more than 11 varieties of Olsen's potatoes are specially developed, planted by hand, nurtured and harvested.
Mizuna's co-owner and chef Sylvia Wilson favors Olsen's Yukon gold potatoes because they are "dense and earthy and not the least bit watery," she says. At her eclectic downtown vegetarian and seafood restaurant, Wilson offers wasabi mashed potatoes, utilizing Olsen Farm's buttery Yukon golds.
Chef and owner James Malone features Olsen Farm potatoes with two of the entrees at his Liberty Lake restaurant, Solstice. A grilled beef tenderloin topped with sauce bordelaise is served with garlic whipped potatoes. An autumnal roasted confit of Moscovy duck leg with brandied local cherries and orange-port sauce is accompanied by Olsen potatoes and vegetables.
At Brix, Coeur d'Alene's newest restaurant, Executive Chef Brian Hutchins only uses Olsen Farm potatoes. Garlic and thyme skillet potatoes, utilizing a creamy Desiree potato, complement an entree of grilled ribeye. Customers at the contemporary restaurant on Sherman can also order a side dish of fork-mashed German butterball potatoes.
Mushrooms -- "The weather and landscape in the Northwest are ideal for wild mushrooms," writes chef-owner Tom Douglas of Seattle's well-known Dahlia Lounge, Etta's Seafood and Palace Kitchen in his book Seattle Kitchen. "More than 2,000 varieties of mushrooms grow here, many of them edible, although only 10 or 12 or these appear regularly in our markets."
Mushrooms are prized as flavor enhancers for other foods as well as being an appetite stimulant. Chanterelles, the most plentiful mushroom in the Northwest, have a mild flavor, golden color and are very versatile.
Malone features a creamy chanterelle mushroom risotto with lemon-dusted chicken breast served with proscuitto, peas and carrots at Solstice. Mizuna's Wilson braises local chanterelles and serves them with pan-roasted escolar enhanced with sage, finished with a red wine-mushroom reduction and accompanied by an apple and Olsen Farms potato hash.
The boletus, called the king of mushrooms, grows throughout the Northwest and is also known as porcini. It has a meaty taste and is universally regarded as one of the best mushrooms. Hutchins utilizes these flavorful mushrooms in a juice served over crispy roasted duckling with roasted pears and butternut squash on his autumn menu at Brix. Paprika's Graves features the regal fungi with a braised pork shoulder flavored with local juniper berries and served with a sweet potato gratin.
Many area chefs sing the praises of Mt. Spokane Mushrooms. Owners Ralph and Kris Tew specialize in king oyster and shiitake mushrooms. At Luna, Pierce prepares Mt. Spokane's King oyster and shiitake mushrooms as a confit and serves them with a Washington beef tenderloin and porcini jus. He also serves roasted fall Mt. Spokane mushrooms on applewood-oven pizza with herb-scented goat cheese and local sage.
Percy's Caf & eacute; Americana in the Valley is featuring several Inland Northwest-themed fall specials on its menu. One of those entrees is a Washington beef T-bone steak with wild mushroom demi-glace.
At downtown's Quinn's restaurant, owner-chef Kile Tansy uses a local, wild mushroom mix for his sherried mushroom soup and mushroom sauce for steaks.
Lentils -- The humble lentil, one of the first plants ever domesticated, flourishes in the Inland Northwest's rich soil on the Palouse. More than 90 percent of our country's lentils are produced here. The flavorful legume has a wonderful, earthy taste. Ounce for ounce, it has more protein than beef and contains generous amounts of vitamins and minerals, especially iron.
"I always use local lentils," Waliser says. A special plate at Caf & eacute; 5-Ten is a grilled, curried local Small Planet tofu appetizer with red lentil hummus and grilled flat bread.
Tansy also utilizes lentils at Quinn's in a curried lentil dish for his vegetarian plate and as a complement for lamb entrees.
Huckleberries -- Tangy, sweet and highly prized -- these delicacies are synonymous with the Inland Northwest. These wild blueberries grow in our surrounding mountains, though pickers often have to contend with bears for these flavor-packed nuggets. Huckleberries lend themselves well to fruity sauces that complement rich meats as well as luscious desserts.
Percy's Caf & eacute; Americana serves a rich huckleberry cheesecake as well as huckleberry daiquiris and huckleberry lemonade. At Caf & eacute; 5-Ten, Waliser makes huckleberry compote with local berries. For a dessert, he drizzles it over sour-cream pound cake with lemon mousse.
In the creative hands of local chefs, our region's autumn ingredients blend into dishes that are the unique essence of the Inland Northwest. They are also an essential link to the area in which we live.