5 Things for Spring

I always feel guilty coming back here after so long without a recipe, but if you’d tasted the string of mediocre dishes to come out of my kitchen recently you’d probably say a prayer of thanks. I don’t know if I should blame myself or the food, but in the last couple of weeks we’ve had bitter, water-logged eggplant, chicken with a texture like vulcanized rubber, and a chocolate cake that tasted more like peanuts than chocolate (and no, before you ask, there were no peanuts in it…). Luckily, I’ve had a pile of things mounting on my virtual desk that I’ve been meaning to tell you about – news, reviews, and that sort of stuff – so hopefully they’ll tide you over until I find out where my recipe mojo escaped to, ambush it from behind, drag it home kicking and screaming and chain it to the stove.

1. Storyville Coffee

If you’ve been to Seattle, you know you don’t have to look far for good coffee. In fact it may be the one thing here more ubiquitous than the rain. I’m not talking about Starbucks, either; throughout the Pacific Northwest small artisan coffee roasters like Vita, Zoka, Umbria and Stumptown have been upping the ante in recent years to the point where you can’t take three steps without bumping into a cup of coffee that is not only fantastically good, but was probably fairly-traded and sustainably-grown too. With such excellent roasters being a dime a dozen around here, I wasn’t particularly quick to jump on the email sent to me by Ryan Gamble, co-president of the Seattle-based Storyville coffee company, since I’d never heard of them and I wasn’t really interested in reviewing what I thought would be just another good cup of coffee. Luckily he didn’t give up, though, and invited me to meet him for breakfast at a local bakery on Bainbridge Island, where it turns out, the company has their roasting studio. Intrigued by the local connection, I agreed, and spent a fun and fascinating morning with Ryan and the Storyville team.

As it turns out, Storyville is not your average Seattle micro-roaster. For one thing, they don’t even market themselves locally; their idea is that people throughout the US should have access to as great of coffee as we do in the Pacific Northwest, and so they’ve built their business model around quickly delivering ultra-fresh coffee by mail. Also, instead of offering a myriad of different geographic-origin and flavor options, they focus on one carefully crafted, expertly-roasted blend which they offer in caffeinated and decaf versions. (Admittedly I’m still a little dubious about the one-size-fits-all model, as tastes obviously vary; however I do think it’s wise for a small company to focus on doing one thing perfectly than a lot of things imperfectly.) What really struck me about these guys, however, is their passion – not just for coffee, but for their humanitarian ideals, though it is being realized in some untraditional ways. Explaining how difficult it is for a small company like theirs to monitor the human and environmental conditions at the source of all their beans – and not wanting to make claims they cannot personally verify* – Ryan told me they’ve decided to put their conscience to work at the profit end. During the month of May, for example, Storyville is giving away 100% of their revenue – not just profits, but all money earned, up to $1,000,000 – to the International Justice Mission, a human-rights organization that seeks to end slavery and human trafficking around the world. And Ryan tells me they’re committed to charitable giving for the long term, and that even after this huge campaign in May ends a large percentage of their profits will continue to go to organizations like the IMJ.

So that’s all well and good, but what about the coffee? Well, I had the chance to taste it both in their studio and at home, and I have to say, it is very good. I don’t think I’d go so far as to say it’s the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had, and their blend will probably not be to everyone’s taste, but to mine is very balanced, smooth and complex, particularly in the first three or four days after roasting. And crucially, they do make sure you get it very fresh, no matter how far – or how close – to their studio you live.

To read all about Storyville, their coffee and their ‘Give It All Away in May’ campaign, please visit their website.

* Update: I’ve posted an email I just received from Ryan in the comments, where he gives a little more info on the environmental and humanitarian standards their bean supplier adheres to.

2. Fog Linen Work

I fell in madly in love with Japanese designer Yumiko Sekine’s rustic, simple designs in Lithuanian linen the first time I ran across them on Design Within Reach; her beautifully textured tablecloths, napkins and towels are like works of art in cloth. Unfortunately DWR only carries a small selection of her range, as I found out when I started browsing Fog Linen’s Japanese site. Fortunately, Yumiko makes it easy for anyone to order her linen no matter where in the world you are – you just send email her a list of the products you want (which does take some sleuthing if you don’t speak Japanese, but not much) and she ships them to you (very affordably) by Japanese airmail. I bought a selection of kitchen towels in shades of blue, brown and flax that are so gorgeous I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to bring myself to use them. But that’s beside the point, right?

To order direct from Fog Linen, browse their catalogue and follow the linked instructions. Although it isn’t mentioned, Yumiko also accepts Paypal.

Photo from foglinenwork.com.

3. Reusable shopping bags

Okay, here’s where I need some help from you. I’ve been eyeing those reusable shopping bags that fold up into inconspicuous packages and store in your purse or car, and finally come to the realization that I need a few. As much as I bristle at the idea that you need to buy plastic bags to save plastic bags, I’ve realized that all the good intentions in the world will never compel me to remember to carry the reusable bags I already own. The problem is that there are so many different ones on the market now, and my head is spinning trying to decide which brand to go with. Between Envirosax, Chico, Baggu, RuMe, Acme, Flip and Tumble and Use it Again Sam there seems to be a whole universe of reusable shopping bags, each with their own fervent fan club. What makes it harder is that I’m not entirely sure what I need. Do I want a gusseted, square or flat shape? Do I want one handle or two? Do I want whimsical patterns on the fabric or will solid colors suit me just fine? Will I find stuffing, folding or rolling into a tube the least hassle after every use, and which design will take up the least room in my purse? And then there’s the most important question: will I actually use them?

In other words, any experiences, opinions or advice will be gratefully received.

4. Fat

Have you ever bought a new cookbook and upon opening it realized that this is the one thing that was missing from your life and you didn’t even know it? Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit (particularly since I haven’t actually made anything from it yet…), but this book is a revelation, and if you haven’t got your hands on a copy yet, do so now. Fascinating, intelligent and deliciously naughty, Fat celebrates animal fat in all its edible incarnations. Arguing that it’s high time to move past our deeply-entrenched (and, it turns out, faulty) assumption that animal fat is unhealthy, Jennifer McLagan offers a selection of recipes so tempting they’ll banish the fat-o-phobe in you forever. I mean, there’s a whole third of the book devoted to butter for crying out loud, with recipes for things like brown butter ice cream, salted butter tart and my future death-bed request, the Kouign Amann from Chez Michel in Paris. Be still my beating heart!
p.s. The James Beard Foundation liked it too – it just won their book of the year award.

5. Abruzzo Earthquake Relief

I’m sure you heard of the terrible earthquake that hit Abruzzo last month, virtually destroying the city of L’Aquila. I was devastated to learn that the beautiful, majestic city I visited barely a year ago is in ruins, and many of the wonderful people I met there have likely lost homes, jobs and loved ones. From my friends elsewhere in Abruzzo I’ve heard that the earthquake has impacted the entire region, even the areas that didn’t suffer physical damage. They tell me the tourism industry has been particularly hard-hit, as thousands of people who were planning trips this summer have cancelled. On top of the recession, you can imagine what a devastating impact this is having on the local economy. I know funds are tight for everyone, but if you can, please consider donating to the Red Cross relief effort in L’Aquila. Or consider planning a trip to Abruzzo, one of the most beautiful and least-known regions of Italy. I can think of few more enjoyable ways to help people in need.

Oh, okay, since you’ve made it this far I’ll give you a bonus sixth item: A few weeks ago I was thrilled to be included along with forty-nine other fabulous sites in the London Times’ rundown of their favorite food blogs. As you may know, they’re working their way through the list, posting a Q&A with each blogger, and last week was my turn to be interviewed. Check it out here!