Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Serendipitously, my return to Portland at the beginning of August (a vacation at home, which, as I read in the NYT, is a rising American trend) happened at just the right time. Enough days had passed between the heat wave of 2006 and my arrival. The weather map was colored entirely red for that week that scorched this country, and all I hoped for was some nice weather. So I got lucky. When my plane touched down at Portland’s modern little airport (what seems like a smaller version of Santiago’s in design and civility, complete with wine bar and gourmet take out counter), it was a perfect 76 degrees and sunny. The sky was clear, Mt. Hood still had a tiny dusting of snow on top, and summer fruit was at its ripest peak.

One evening, I met up with some friends for dinner at Savoy, a bistro up the street from my apartment (and sister restaurant to my fave bar, the Aalto lounge). The relationships represented at that table were both old and new, one of each. The occasion was the stopping-though-town of a childhood friend, who is touring the U.S. by bus with Outstanding in the Field. She travels around helping to organize, orchestrate and decorate dinners cooked and served right where the food is grown, on an organic farm. It is a beautiful thing what they do—aesthetically and philosophically.

So we sit down on the bar side of Savoy, order a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, and some zucchini fritters. In the center of this dish were a few halves of heirloom* cherry tomatoes—in yellow, red and orange. Generally, I don’t care too much for tomatoes, unless they’re really red. I detest the salmon-colored ones that are sold in the supermarkets and sliced for sandwiches. But I put one of these little jewels into my mouth and it was a whole different thing. These were sweet, so ripe, so full of flavor, almost like little pieces of fruit. They were absolutely delicious. I couldn’t get enough! Whatever else I ate there, I remember it being good, but not what it was—all I can recall are those tomatoes. My friends generously offered me the last ones on the plate, and I ordered extras for my green salad. When the runner brought my salad out though, it didn’t have any tomatoes on it. One of my friends reminded a server, and they returned with a little dish of (gasp!) chopped tomatoes. It was actually an unintentionally provocative comparison, to see these small, mealy, pink pieces of industrial tomato piled lifelessly into a white bowl after indulging in those vivid juicy little heirloom ones. A little while later, they brought me the real things, and I enjoyed them happily.

Inspired by those gorgeous little fruits, I set out to the Saturday farmers market to procure some for my own culinary plans that evening. I happened to be in town in time to attend a small outdoor dinner party at a friend’s home in North Portland. He’s a wonderful cook, and was making everything himself, but I couldn’t resist bringing something market fresh to share with everybody there. The spread was impressive and super-fresh—the most tender grilled steak, sauteed green beans, corn on the cob, and roasted blue baby potatoes. His friends brought a salad made also with things they’d bought that morning at the market—lettuces, carrots, cucumbers, pancetta, and blue cheese. To this were added cocktails, wine, and my own heirloom tomato caprese salad. At the market I went around to many different organic growers and picked out the most interesting and varied tomatoes I could find—round cherry shaped orange and yellow ones, red romas, and huge amorphous alien looking ones in all colors. I bought a really dark almost purple one, an apple-green one, and a bright yellow one. All different sizes, shapes and shiny colors, they looked beautiful in a bowl (like a mixed fruit salad, so amazing that they are all the same fruit, but in so many forms!), layered with fresh mozzarella and basil leaves. I hardly dressed the salad, it almost seemed a shame to mask the natural flavor, so I just drizzled it with a tiny bit of balsamic vinegar, olive oil and salt and pepper. It was fabulous! This perfect night of food and conversation under the stars was finished with a delicate glass of honey-like haitian rum, syrupy and exotic.

*Heirloom: “something valuable that has been in the possession of a family for a long time and has been passed on from one generation to the next” (computer definition). As applied to produce, an heirloom plant is one whose seeds or species has been preserved over time, in spite of the fact that that type has lost market value in the face of another that is widely grown and sold. For example, we see the exact same size and color of tomato being grown and sold around the country—if we saw a bumpy yellow one in the produce aisle, we’d think it was “wierd.” Farmers have saved these plants, and begun to grow and sell them to people who have learned that these unusual looking vegetables and fruit actually taste better. This is being done with both plants and livestock, such as heirloom pork (smaller pigs raised by smaller farms).

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