Ore. trip broadens culinary horizons

The Baltimore Sun

I am going to eat more animal parts, add some excitement to my coffee-drinking routine and memorize the five different species of wild Pacific salmon. That is what I resolved recently after returning from a week of vacation eating and drinking in Oregon.

Travel these days can be painful. My wife and I are still mourning the loss of a jar of Oregon loganberry jam, confiscated at a security gate at Portland International Airport. Because the jar of jam held more than 3 ounces, it could not, the authorities said, be carried on the airplane.

We should have stashed the jar in our checked luggage or eaten it, spoonful by delicious spoonful, at the perimeter of the security checkpoint. Instead, the authorities dumped the jar in the trash. Ouch. All those juicy, hard-to-find loganberries gone to waste.

But travel can also wake up your taste buds, make you sample stuff you ordinarily don't eat back home. One example would be rabbit liver.

Rabbits, it turns out, have big livers. Who knew? Now I know and have become a big fan of rabbit pate. I had some at Nostrana, a Portland restaurant run by executive chef Cathy Whims. It specializes in serving dishes made with locally grown ingredients and cooked in ovens fired by locally grown wood.

The rabbit pate was smooth and, happily, tasted more of butter than liver. It came with my dinner entree of fricasseed rabbit in Dijon mustard sauce. This particular rabbit, a Rain Shadow, hailed from an Oregon ranch. It was so flavorful that it made me take a longer, more longing look at the critters that hop around my Baltimore garden in Druid Hill Park. I always regarded these rabbits as a nuisance. Now I am thinking of them as potential entrees.

Cooking offal, parts of the animal that are not prime cuts, seems to be the rage in Portland restaurants. As I read the annual restaurant guide published by The Oregonian newspaper, I saw ample mentions of organ meat entrees. The two restaurants sharing the Oregonian's title of restaurant of the year are Le Pigeon - the name comes from the establishment's fondness for squab and from a tattoo on the chef's forearm - and a restaurant called Beast. Scanning the menus of these establishments, I saw entrees of beef tongue and lamb's neck. Not dishes I usually make at home.

I am not ready to take what I call the total Portland culinary plunge. That would involve getting a tattoo and eating offal nightly. But my short trip on what for me was a walk on the wild side - sampling rabbit pate - was well rewarded.

The Pacific Northwest has long been the prime ground for experiments in coffee. The cappuccino craze, the latte movement and the belief in supporting your local roaster have their roots here. But the latest in exotic coffee concepts in Oregon is bikini-clad baristas.

Spurred by success in Salem, the Bikini Coffee Co. is set to open a new store in Portland, where the cappuccino and lattes will be served by women wearing bikini tops. The brothers who run the company claim their mother makes sure good manners are followed. Right.

Cleavage might sell coffee in Oregon, but I doubt it would work in Maryland. We don't drink that much coffee.

One of the best meals I had in Oregon was a Sunday night supper of wild salmon cooked by Janie Hibler, a friend and author of five cookbooks, including Wild About Game, winner of a 1999 James Beard Award.

This was chinook salmon. It had more flavor, moisture and a more vibrant red color than any salmon I have seen in Maryland. The salmon catch is monitored in the Northwest, and it was my luck that the chinook fishery was open for a few days while I was there. Shortly after fishermen caught the chinook, its prized flesh appeared in Portland fish markets.

The chinook along with the sockeye are, I learned, the tastiest salmon. The other types of Pacific salmon are chum, pink and coho. I am memorizing the list and hope one day to eat my way through it.

The fresh chinook salmon ranked up there with freshly caught Chesapeake Bay striped bass rockfish as the best fish I have eaten.

Salmon that fresh is hard to find here. But I could go fishing for stripers, or I could set a trap for that rabbit.


See Rob Kasper each Wednesday on ABC2/WMAR-TV's News at Noon.

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