Restaurant Memories: The Corn Soup That Made Me Swoon

For many people, their strongest memories center around firsts: the first time they rode a bike, their first car, their first kiss.

Chef Benjamin Schade.

For me, many of those memorable firsts center around—no surprise here—food. The first time I had spit-roasted whole pig cooked over a fire by my uncles at a tiny cabin in the Blue Mountains; my first taste of kimchi at a snowy mountainside inn on a student trip to Korea; my first pesto pasta in the early days of Papa Haydn's eastside location that was so packed with garlic I could still taste it three days later—which I adored, by the way!

I remember being floored by the broth served with rockfish made by chef Serge Selbe at the London Grill that was as clear as water but was intensely infused with the flavor of fresh tomatoes—he described it as filtered gazpacho. More recently my mind was blown by the corn soup made by Benjamin Schade when he was chef at the late, lamented Old Salt Marketplace in northeast Portland.

Slice kernels off cobs.

Regular readers know I'm a fool for anything with fresh corn in it, and this bowl was the essence of corn in a smooth, creamy, velvety robe, adorned only with a pat of butter melting seductively over its surface punctuated by a sprinkling of fresh pepper. I'd been so taken with it I pestered the poor guy for a couple of years, and just this summer he graciously agreed to share the recipe.

Recently Schade has been cultivating a working urban oasis he's dubbed Schadey Acres Farm, growing heritage varieties of beans, squash, peppers, turnips and other vegetables in the more-than-a-dozen raised beds he's built around his home. He makes use of this bounty in his capacity as a personal chef, but also produces a line of pickled and preserved goods under his own Private Reserve Preserves brand.

Purée kernels with onions, then press through a sieve.

When Schade arrived to show me how the soup was made, I was astounded to find out it had only four ingredients: butter, onions, corn and salt. No cream? What made it so velvety? He said it was all in the method, which he'd learned from Kevin Gibson while working at Castagna.

That answered a lot of my questions about this remarkable soup, since I consider Gibson to be a soup guru. (Anyone remember his remarkable Too Many Tomatoes soup from Castagna? I rest my case.)

With credit given where credit was due, Schade went on to say he basically makes the soup according to Gibson's recipe, which is incredibly simple but more technique-driven than one might guess given the number of ingredients.

Hot sauce, salt and it's done.

Starting with onions simmered in butter, Schade combined them with the kernels from 10 ears of corn which he then simmered ever-so-briefly in corn stock—Schade said Gibson told him the secret to corn soup was to "not cook the corn." Purée the mixture in a blender, run it through a sieve and it's done.

With corn nearing the end of its season in the Pacific Northwest, I'll be heading to the nearest farmers' market this weekend and buying up as much fresh corn as I can, so you'd best get there before I do!

Benjamin Schade's Corn Soup

Adapted from Kevin Gibson

Makes approx. 2 qts.

10 ears of corn
3 med. yellow onions, diced finely
1/4 c. butter
2 qts. corn stock
Salt
Dash of Crystal hot sauce (or tabasco)

Cut the kernels from the ears of corn. (Schade recommends placing the cob on a cutting board and slicing one side of the kernels from the cob. Rotate the cob so the cut side is against the board and slice the second side. Repeat on the last two sides of the cob. See photo above.) You can also then scrape the cobs with a knife or a handy little tool called a corn slitter to remove any remaining kernels and juice.

Corn slitter.

If you need corn stock, place the scraped cobs in a large pot (a Dutch oven or pasta pot) and barely cover with water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer for 30 minutes. Strain through a fine mesh sieve.

While simmering the stock, chop the onions. Melt butter in a large pot and add onions. Sauté until translucent, stirring constantly to avoid browning. (Schade says it's critical not to brown the onions.) Add corn kernels and stir to combine then add corn stock and bring to a simmer. Simmer 5 minutes. (Remember Gibson's advice: do not cook the corn!)

Remove from heat and immediately strain the corn mixture through a sieve or colander, reserving the stock for another use. Put the corn in a blender, making sure not to overfill the blender; you can do this in batches—remember that hot liquids can explode out of a blender, so Schade advises holding down a thick towel over the lid of the blender while running it. Purée until completely smooth.

Strain through a fine mesh sieve into a large soup pot. If you're straining several batches, you can add strained bits of corn mixture back to the next batch to purée and strain. Schade stresses that it's better for the soup to be thick since extra liquid can be added to thin out the soup but extra liquid can’t be removed. Start thick and thin to perfect texture.

When all the corn mixture has been strained into the soup pot, add 1 tsp. of hot sauce and salt to taste. (Schade recommends no more than 1 Tbsp. hot sauce for 2 quarts of soup; he said "the hot sauce is not for heat but for the vinegar to brighten the flavor.")

Heat briefly before serving, taste for seasonings and garnish with a pat of butter and grinding of pepper.

Guide to Peppers: Some Like It Hot!

A recent newsletter from Ginger Rapport, Market Master of the Beaverton Farmers Market, featured this guide to the peppers that are tumbling into local farmers markets right now.

Chile versus Chili

If you like it hot, then this is your time of the year because it is chile season.

According to Chef Mark Miller, author of the The Great Chile Book, the generally accepted convention is that chile refers to the plant or pod while chili refers to the dish made from meat and chiles. The name pepper is a misnomer that has existed since Christopher Columbus saw his first capsicum and erroneously thought that he had found the plant that produces black pepper, which has no relation to capsicum. However, the name pepper is still used interchangeably with chile.

Peppers, from hot to mild, are available in abundance right now.

The chemical in chile peppers that gives them heat is capsaicin [pron. cap-SAY-uh-sin] which is technically a neurotoxin. It stimulates the adrenal glands to release hormones, which theoretically create an energy rush. The fiery sensation you feel also triggers the brain to produce endorphins, natural painkillers that promote a sense of well-being and stimulation. They can also make you sweat, which is your body’s natural air conditioner. This would explain why chiles figure prominently in cuisines in and around the tropics.

Depending upon whether you like them hot, mild, or somewhere in between, you will want to make informed decisions when purchasing chiles. The first thing that you should know is that the heat level in a chile is rated on a scale known as the Scoville Heat Index. Invented by Wilbur Scoville, it ranks chiles in order from mildest to hottest with zero being the mildest and the hottest being over a million. In general, the smaller the chile, the hotter it is.

Scoville ranking for bell peppers? Zero.

We’ve included the Scoville ranking* for each. Most of the heat is located in the seeds and white ribs inside. Removing the seeds and ribs, using only the flesh of the chile, will give you all of the flavor and less of the heat. Keep in mind that you should use gloves when handling the hottest peppers to avoid irritating your skin.  It is important that you do not touch anything, especially your face, before disposing of the gloves and washing your hands thoroughly. 

Bell Peppers: Scoville 0. Bell peppers are sweet peppers. They add flavor but no heat to your food.

Anaheim Peppers: Scoville 1000. Big and mild, perfect for stuffing. The skin is a little tough but peels easily if you roast it first.

Poblano and red bell peppers.

Poblano Peppers: Scoville 1,000-2,000. The classic chile for Chiles Rellenos. The have great flavor and enough heat to be zesty but not scorch anyone. As they mature, the skin reddens at which  point they are dried and sold as Ancho chiles.

Jalapeno Pepper: Scoville 2,000-8,000. This is the most commonly used pepper in the U.S. It is spicy but not overwhelming.

Serrano Pepper: Scoville 10,000-25,000. Similar in flavor to the Jalapeno only much hotter, Usually small, about 2” and green in color. A general rule of thumb is that the smaller the serrano, the hotter it will be.

Ayers Creek Farm cayenne peppers.

Cayenne Pepper: Scoville 25,000-50,000. When you want to add heat to food this is a good choice. Red in color, the Cayenne is usually dried and used in powdered form.

Thai Chile: Scoville 50,000-100,000. This pepper is classified as “very hot." It is a very small pepper and is commonly called for in Thai recipes.

Habanero Chile Pepper: Scoville 150,000-350,000. Of the hot peppers most commonly used, this is the hottest. Its color ranges from green to yellow to pink. It is very short but don’t let that fool you, this chile is scorching hot!

Other peppers you will find in the market:

Small, boxy padron peppers.

Padron Peppers. Originally from Spain, they are harvested young and small and they typically have no seeds. This makes them mild, perfect for eating whole. Farmers tell us that about one in every 12 will be surprisingly hot and there is no way to know which one packs the extra punch. [Tradition dictates that getting the hot pepper brings luck.] Sauté in olive oil until blistered and shower with salt. Serve hot.

Shishito. Popular in Japan, these are very similar to Padron peppers, but are more consistently sweet and mild. Serve them sautéed like Padrons, or drizzle with soy sauce and sesame oil. Very tasty in tempura.

The Dozen Spiciest Cuisines

Chiles play a prominent role in the dishes of many countries. According to Eater.com, the dozen spiciest world cuisines are: Chinese (Sichan), Ethiopian, Ghanaian, Liberian, Nigerian, Indian, Japanese, Korean, Mexican, Peruvian, Senegalese, Southern Italian and Sicilian, Tibetan and, last but not least, Thai.

Creamed Collard Greens with Peanut Butter and Chiles.

If you are looking to spice up your life, make sure to look beyond Mexican food. While we love the spicy south of the border cuisine, chiles traditionally pack a punch in curries, stir-fries, rice and noodle dishes, salads and condiments from all over the world.

We love a good comfort dish like Chinese-American General Tso's Chicken and this West African one-pot favorite, Creamed Collard Greens with Peanut Butter and Chiles

Roasting Red Pepper Primer

Many recipes call for roasting your peppers and roasted red peppers are a great addition as a condiment to sandwiches or added to hummus. We found two foolproof methods for roasting and skinning your red peppers, no matter your kitchen setup. 

Our favorite method is charring over a gas burner. It's quick and easy with very little cleanup. If you have an electric stove, the next best option is to roast the peppers in the oven under the broiler.

* Scoville rankings are often given in a range because varieties and growing conditions vary.

Stories of Loss and Community: Oregon Comes Together in the Face of Calamity

It's Monday morning. Wildfires are still raging up and down the West Coast, including in my beloved state of Oregon. I am looking out the front window of my Portland home at the houses just a block away that are shrouded in a yellowish smoky haze. Trees three blocks away are mere shadows, barely discernible against the sky.

But I'm lucky.

I can stay inside my home with the air filter my husband jury-rigged from a furnace filter and our old box fan, only venturing out briefly when our dog needs a potty break. So many of my fellow Oregonians don't have that luxury because they, like Naked Acres' Gus Liszka in the video above, have had to flee their homes, many leaving their farms, their crops and sometimes their animals in the face of the fires sweeping across our state.

I have been so moved by our agricultural community that has come together to help their neighbors, no questions asked, and the facilities, community members and volunteers who have been caring for their neighbors and their animals.

And that little white farmhouse standing against the black skies on the left? That's Gus's home.

If you'd like to help, here are organizations that are aiding local farmers and ranchers directly:

Astiana Tomatoes: Born in Italy's Piedmont, Bred in Oregon

Forgive me, dear readers, but I'm about to be in head-down tomato processing mode for the next couple of weeks. I've got two sheet pans of chopped tomatoes in the oven that need to come out in 30 minutes, so this is going to be quick. They're the tail end of 60-pounds of the red-ribbed beauties known as Astiana tomatoes from Ayers Creek Farm, the first round of the 150 or so pounds I plan to process this year and squirrel away in the freezer for the winter.

I know, crazy, right?

A tomato ready for market can take years of careful selection.

Those tomatoes, with just the right balance of tart-to-sweet, are the product of more than a decade of selecting seeds for flavor, plant health and field-hardiness on the part of Carol and Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm in Gaston, Oregon.

Carol describes the discovery of this signature fruit thusly:

"We came upon the fruit at the market in Asti [in the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy], marked 'Nostrano.'  We knew it was the local variety, far less ornamental than the perfect, glossy imports displayed nearby. Had tomatoes not been on our shopping list for that night’s dinner, we might well have walked on by, but made the decision to select a few for the sauce. Their flavor was a wonderful surprise and it was after dinner that I scooped out all the seed I could find from the compost bucket."

(Anthony would remind me here that Italy's Piedmont is on roughly the same latitude as Oregon, meaning that the seeds could be adapted to our maritime climate.) 

Harvest also means
selecting seeds for next year.

From that less-than-a-handful of seeds they worked over the years to adapt them to their Wapato Valley soil and climate to grow the tomato of their dreams. It's important to point out that since tomatoes yield only one crop per year, selecting and planting for reliable results can take a decade or more to achieve the desired result. Then it requires painstakingly selecting seeds each harvest season in order to have enough of a selection for the next year's crop.

Plant breeding is truly the commitment of a lifetime, and the knowledge of Anthony and Carol's hard work makes my enjoyment of these amazing tomatoes all the sweeter.

Roasted tomatoes

My method of roasting is super simple, and to me respects the integrity of the fruit's best qualities, not to mention giving me the maximum flexibilty when it comes to using them.

Preheat the oven to 400°, roughly chop the tomatoes into two-inch chunks, load onto two sheet trays skin-side down and roast for an hour. Cool enough to pull most of the skins off (most easily done by hand), load into quart freezer bags and you're done. If you want a sauce-like consistency, cool completely and run through a blender or food mill.

For a smoky flavor, you can build a fire in your wood-fired grill, spread the hot coals out and put a layer of tin foil over the grates, leaving the edges open so smoke can escape. Roughly chop the tomatoes as described above and place skin-side down on the foil. Place the lid on the grill and roast tomatoes until they are cooked, about 45 minutes to an hour. 

Limited quantities of Ayers Creek Farm Astiana tomatoes are available during their brief season at Rubinette Produce and at Real Good Food.


Here's a recipe for a fabulous tomato soup, one that I think rivals the best you're likely to find.

Creamy Roasted Tomato Soup

8 Tbsp. (1 stick) butter
1 large onion, chopped fine
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 c. flour
2 qts. (8 c.) roasted tomatoes or 3 28-oz. cans crushed tomatoes with their juices
2 c. chicken broth
1 Tbsp. kosher salt plus more to taste
1 tsp. celery salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper

In a Dutch oven or large soup pot, melt butter over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until tender and translucent. Add garlic and continue to sauté 2 minutes. Add flour and stir, making sure it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan, for 3 minutes. Add broth, tomatoes, salt, celery salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer for 30 minutes, stirring frequently to make sure nothing sticks to the bottom of the pan. Remove soup from heat and, using an immersion blender,  purée the soup thoroughly until smooth*. Add more salt to taste, if needed. Serve.

* I don't mind a little texture from any bits that don't get totally blended in, but if you want a completely silky smooth finished product, you can press it through a fine mesh sieve, which will catch any remaining seeds or other bits.

Help Urban Gleaners Feed Hungry Kids

One of the hidden casualties of COVID-19 is the loss of food sources for the nonprofits that feed hungry people in our community.

Think about it for a minute.

With the closure of restaurants, convention centers, event locations and corporate campuses, food pantries lost a major source of food donations. Add to that the loss of access to distribution sites when schools and other community buildings were required to close, and you've got the potential for a major community hunger crisis.

Volunteers repackage food that might otherwise go to waste.

Urban Gleaners, a nonprofit with a 14-year history of reducing food insecurity and food waste in Multnomah and Washington Counties, normally collects over a million pounds of fresh food each year from local businesses before it can go to waste, then repackages and delivers it to people who need it—free of charge, no questions asked.

When the pandemic hit, the organization faced a 90 percent reduction in donations due to the forced shutdown of its donation sources. While donations are currently on the rise, it's gone from serving 4,700 people per week at 67 distribution sites to serving just over 2,500 people at only 11 sites. (At least half of those served are under 14 years old, and 70 percent identify as people of color.)

Urban Gleaners distributes food in city parks—no questions asked.

Because transportation is often the second barrier to food, behind economic hardship, and there are thousands of children whose families are unable to drive to pick up essential food from distant locations, Urban Gleaners has shifted to distributing food at parks throughout the city. They are also delivering food boxes directly to apartment complexes and school parking lots in high-need communities.

Though Urban Gleaners estimates that it will have lost at least half of in-kind revenue for the year, and it forecasts that program costs will increase by more than twenty percent, it is currently supplementing food donations and supporting local business by purchasing some products from local farms and small food businesses.

It is in the midst of fundraising to help combat hunger in our community, so if you can, please consider donating. If a neighbor or someone you know is facing hunger, here is a list of Urban Gleaners’ food pick-up locations and other resources.

Farm Bulletin: A Nod to State Fairs Past

Oregon State Fair, circa 1996, by Anthony Boutard, Ayers Creek Farm:

Among the activities on hold this year is State Fair, traditionally held over Labor Day weekend. Here are a few moments from State Fairs in the mid-1990s. The animals shown at the fair are the blue ribbon winners from the 36 county fairs, culminating in the big event before returning to classes. The intense concentration on the part of the young animal owners underscore their serious purpose. A lot of work has gone into this moment. State Fair is the wonderful blended fragrance of dung and saw dust, muted light and sound to keep the animals calm, and a lunch and nap next to the stall after a late night at the arcades and amusements. A short distance from the show buildings the noise of the rides, arcade bells, and the unceasing calls of the barkers and sellers of treasures found only at fairs, interspersed with the fragrance of fried foods of every sort.

In Season: Get In While the Getting's Good

If Josh Alberg of Rubinette Produce has any advice for the height of the summer produce season, it's don't procrastinate.

"When the season starts, get your favorites early," he said. "Because if you wait, they'll be gone."

The time is now to get your heirloom tomatoes at the farmers' markets, and there's a plethora of peppers, eggplant, beans, corn and peaches tumbling in from local farms. Strawberries and cane fruit like raspberries and blackberries are nearly done, as are summer squash and cucumbers, so if you haven't got around to making your grandma's favorite dill pickles yet, you'd best get cracking.

Alsberg shook his head when talking about this summer's weather.

"It's been kinda strange," he said, recounting cooler temperatures early in the summer that got everything off to a late start, with some early crops experiencing a short, not-very-robust season. Tomatoes were delayed early on, and then 100-degree days like those we've had lately "put the kibosh" on some varieties that are normally prolific in midsummer, so expect a slightly shortened season.

He may have caught my sharp intake of breath, since he quickly reassured those of us who might be expecting to preserve a couple of hundred pounds to last us through the winter. Late summer and early fall cooking varieties like Romas and Astianas should be fine, as long as temperatures remain moderately warm and we don't get early rains. Whew!

Ground vegetables like carrots, beets and turnips are plentiful, as are greens like kale and chard. As mentioned above, pepper people will find piles of Jimmy Nardellos, bell peppers in all colors and Italian sweet peppers at the markets for the next month, and peaches, nectarines and corn should be around for that long, too.

Plums and table grapes are just getting started, as are local melons, and kiwi berries and ground cherries should start appearing soon. We can also look forward to freshly dug potatoes and onions by the end of the month, as well as winter squash like delicata and butternuts. Local apples and pears will be arriving from orchards by the end of September, though Alsberg said he's seeing a few local Gravensteins listed on his farmers' hot sheets, along with Zestar, Ginger Gold and Pristine varieties.

As usual with apples, though, Alsberg—whose social media handle is "fruit monkey"—warns that most of the varieties you'll see at the big grocery store have been in storage since last November or imported from places like Australia, Chile or Argentina, so make sure you check the country of origin if you want fresh, crisp apples for your table. He winced when mentioning one in particular, called Williams Pride, describing it as "mushy and mealy." Blech!

She Asked, I Answered: My Fave PDX Restaurant Recs in Forbes

Apparently rumors are flying that Portland is rife with bomb-throwing terrorists, the air is thick with tear gas and the city is practically in ruins. But that's so last week! (Just kidding. Any damage was limited to a tiny area south of downtown.) Though like other U.S. cities, the out-of-control pandemic—thanks a sh*tload, GOP—has hit our food community hard, and there have been notable closures among longtime institutions and newcomers alike. My friend Leslie Kelly, a fan of PDX who is a contributor to Forbes.com, wanted to let folks know the city's vaunted restaurant scene is still alive, if not as thriving as it once was, so she asked me and a few other food writers to discuss our favorites.

Here's my list:

Grain & Gristle’s new owners Heidi Whitney-Schile and her husband Jeff Schile bought the restaurant from founding chef Ben Meyer, Upright Brewing's Alex Ganum and Marcus Hoover, maintaining the original owners' focus on house-made cooking showcasing locally sourced meat, charcuterie, produce and baked goods, along with a rotating selection of local brews. Quality ingredients, affordable and approachable, it never disappoints. Takeout dinners Wednesday through Saturday and limited patio seating for weekend brunch.

Tastebud got its start in 1999 when former farmer and pizza maven Mark Doxtader towed his wood-fired mobile pizza oven to the Portland Farmers Market where he sold his fresh-baked bread, bagels and pizza. He opened his first brick-and-mortar restaurant in the Multnomah neighborhood in 2014, selling the same farm-sourced, sourdough crusted pizzas and his legendary fresh locally sourced salads and other offerings with hand-crafted drinks and local wine and beer. Open for takeout only.

Burrasca chef/owner Paolo Calamai and his wife, Elizabeth Petrosian, moved to Portland direct from Paolo’s native Florence, Italy, in 2013, after visiting friends in the city and falling in love with its casual style and the fact that it was an affordable place to realize their dream of starting their own restaurant.

Paolo had worked in restaurants on both sides of the pond all of his working life, and decided to test Portland’s tolerance for the cuisine of his native city. They refurbished a food cart, which got so popular that they were able to open their restaurant in two years.

Known among the city’s fans of Italian food—including Beard-nominated chef Cathy Whims of Nostrana—for its Tuscan classics like pappa al pomodoro, gnudi, and the squid stew called inzimino, the homemade pasta Paolo rolls into tubes called pici or the papardelle he sauces with wild boar ragu have also found an admiring audience. This summer they’re currently selling out their socially distanced seating on the garden-like outdoor patio.

A devotée of the Mexican food scholar Diana Kennedy, chef Kelly Myers opened Xico on a little-trafficked stretch of SE Portland’s Division Street in 2012 with a dedication to serving the authentic food and preparations of Mexico. The street soon grew up around the 60-seat restaurant, though sadly, in 2018, Myers suffered a severe stroke. The helm was taken over by Myers-trained staff which still serves the organic, heirloom nixtamalized corn that is ground into the masa for its tortillas and the sauces made from native Mexican chiles. It is open for takeout only at this time.

The snug P’s & Q’s Market in the city’s up-and-coming Dekum neighborhood has evolved into a “corner deli” with a menu of cold grab-and-go sandwiches and salads plus snacks, drinks and locally sourced groceries and dry goods, and also serves weekend brunch. Its delightful, homey atmosphere is a throwback to small cafés you treasured. It’s open for phone-in takeout orders, patio dining (with cocktails!) and online grocery orders.

Read the rest of PDX Dining Recs From Savvy Insiders, with best picks from Portland food notables Ivy Manning, Jonathan Kauffman and Mike Thelin. (Note to Sarah Minnick: I listed Lovely's among my top faves, but Kauffman had already claimed it. Dang!)

Farm Bulletin: Celebrating the Grain Harvest

My parents moved to The Dalles when I was in college, enabling me to explore the area of Oregon from Dufur to Tygh Valley to Maupin in the often blast-furnace temperatures of summer—one year it hit 112 degrees. I was enthralled by the high rolling hills of wheat, entranced by the wind that ruffled the waves of grain like some pale ocean stretching to the horizon. Contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm reminds us of the ancient rites of the harvest.

The Lammas or Lammastide, falls on the first of August. It is the English “Loaf Mass” celebrating the new grain harvest. The day falls about midpoint during the grain harvest. The loaf is made from the newly harvested grain and used in the Mass. The use of the new grain is symbolic, gratitude for the new harvest. The granary would still have months worth of grain in storage, a hedge against a poor harvest. It may be months before the new grain finds its way again into a loaf.

Waves of scattered straw from the harvested durum,
Lammas Eve, 2020—the birthday of Juliet Capulet—Ayers Creek Farm, Gaston.

It is also notable that the Lammas falls during a busy time, so there is no time for a feast or festival, just a loaf of bread for a modest Mass to say thank you. The harvest feasts and festivals will have to wait until the Harvest Moon, the full moon closest to the autumn equinox. This year, the first of October.

Photos by Anthony Boutard. Top photo of wheat and scabland, Wasco County, Oregon, August, 1997

Pandemic Project: Making Greek-Style Stuffed Grape Leaves

There are several homes in our neighborhood whose residents (current or former) planted grapes that, every spring, faithfully start producing leaves and vines that twine themselves around fences, trees or any stationary object, sporting clusters of teensy, pinhead-sized baby grapes. Most are table types, deep purple and seeded—contributor Anthony Boutard calls them "fecund"—with a few that are seedless, though their specific varieties have been lost to time.

So it was fortuitous that my friend, gifted cook and writer Denise della Santina, called and asked if I wanted to get together to make Greek-style stuffed grape leaves, the kind her mother used to make. Now, Denise's mother wasn't Greek, but she and Denise's father lived a peripatetic life, traveling extensively all over Europe with their three kids in tow, moving back and forth across the country as easily as they traversed oceans, eating and drinking and immersing themselves in the places they found themselves. It was almost the exact opposite of my own WASP-ish, Oregon-centric upbringing.

"We lived in Greece for five-plus years, so our Greek street cred is far better than elsewhere," Denise said.  "Mom learned from the village ladies even before she could speak the language."

Am I envious? Why yes, yes I am!

Denise said she'd get the supplies for the stuffing if I could find some grape leaves. I said I'd do my best.

I arrived at her house the next morning with a shopping bag stuffed full of leaves of various sizes, which turned out to be helpful, since we could use the smaller ones for stuffing and the larger leaves for covering the rolls while they cooked. She trimmed the stems and softened them in a pot of salted water on the stove while I chatted from the doorway—pandemic, remember—then brought them out to the deck where I proceeded to separate and dry the leaves.

Ever the efficient project manager, Denise had cooked and cooled the onions the night before so she could combine them with the meat and spices just before I arrived. In proper socially distanced fashion we set up our work stations at opposite ends of the long table, scissors at the ready should we need to clip some tough leaf veins and a big pot of the meat-rice mixture each.

She showed me how to lay the leaf with the underside up and the stem end toward me, and to place a small amount—a tablespoon or less—at the stem joint, folding up the leaf ends to cover it. Then, like a burrito, the sides were folded in and the whole thing was rolled up tightly.

Magic!

For the next ninety minutes or so we sat and rolled (and rolled some more), eventually filling up our trays with the shiny packets as we caught up on friends and family and  summer events. It put me in mind of the kind of repetitive, calming work that women in my family did when I was growing up, sharing stories and gossip while snapping beans or doing dishes—you wash, I'll dry—or folding clothes fresh off the clothesline.

It was a gift of near-normalcy, a small break, a time out that I sorely needed. Not to mention that dinner was done, a bonus in itself! Thanks, my dearest Denise.

Della Santina Stuffed Grape Leaves

For the stuffing:
60-75 grape leaves, about 6" in diameter*
3 onions, minced finely (a processor works for this)
2 lbs. ground lamb (or a combination of beef and lamb)
1/2 c. uncooked long-grain rice
1/4 c. mint, chopped fine
3 Tbsp. dried mint (dried plus fresh gives added dimension)
3 Tbsp. olive oil (more if your meat is lean)
1 tsp. salt to start and generous grinding of pepper (see note)

For cooking the stuffed grape leaves:
1 c. water (or so)
1/2 c. lemon juice
1/2 c. olive oil

If you're using freshly picked leaves, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. While it is heating, prepare the leaves by snipping off the stems and any thick vein ends. When the water boils, place the leaves in the boiling water and simmer for five minutes until softened and pliable (they'll turn dark green). Drain in a colander and run cold water over them until they can be handled.

Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat and sauté the onions until they're translucent and tender. Cool to room temperature.

While onions cool, take the blanched leaves and pat them dry with paper towels. In a large mixing bowl, combine the cooled onions with the meat, mint and olive oil and some salt and pepper.

NOTE: To test for salt, pepper and mint, heat a small frying pan over medium-high heat and brown a small amount of the meat before you add the uncooked rice; rice will dilute the saltiness. Taste and adjust salt.

Once you're satisfied with the salt level in the meat mixture, mix the uncooked rice into the meat.

Take one leaf and lay it with the shiny side down and the veined underside up, with the base of the leaf toward you. Place a tablespoon (or less if it's a smaller leaf) of the meat mixture at the base near the joint. Bring the bottom lobes up over the meat and fold in the sides (like a burrito). Then roll the packet up toward the point of the leaf. It should make a tight packet. Repeat until you've used all the meat. At this point you can store the stuffed grape leaves in the refrigerator until you're ready to cook them.

To cook the stuffed grape leaves, pour three tablespoons of olive oil into a large Dutch oven. Place the stuffed leaves into the pot, stacking them in layers if necessary. Pour the water, lemon juice and remaining olive oil over them. The water should barely cover the stuffed leaves. If it doesn't add more. Top with more leaves (fresh are fine, too) and cover with a plate to hold it all down. 

Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer and cover the pot with a lid. Cook for 45 minutes to an hour until the rice is done (test at 45 minutes and add time until meat is cooked, rice is very soft and the leaves are tender). Transfer to a platter, bathe in more lemon juice and olive oil and sprinkle with salt.

You'll also want to consider making tzatziki, a simple combination of yogurt, grated cucumber and crushed garlic.

* You can also use the preserved grape leaves that come in a jar. There are approximately 55 leaves in a 2-lb. jar.