WRITTEN BY GREG ATKINSON
PHOTOGRAPHED BY BARRY WONG
An enchanting cook's book takes us to a magical place
"Christina's Cookbook: Stories from a Northwest Island Kitchen" (Sasquatch, $29.95) is not a perfect cookbook. It is not comprehensive like "The Joy of Cooking" or groundbreaking like "Mastering the Art of French Cooking"; it doesn't have exhaustively tested recipes like every issue of Cook's Illustrated does. Rather, it is subjective, a little quirky, and as much fun to read as it is to use. In short, it is an enchanted book. It has the power to transport a home cook into the never-never land that is Christina's restaurant kitchen on Orcas Island, and into the wonderful mind of its captivating author.
I have known Christina for almost as long as she has owned her restaurant. And for the 12 years that I lived and cooked professionally in Friday Harbor on neighboring San Juan Island, I always looked forward to a visit with Chris at her magical perch overlooking tranquil Eastsound. As much as her delightful food, I enjoyed her company. I relished her wit, her insightful commentary on the latest culinary trends and her perspective on the insular world that was the islands' restaurant scene.
With Chris I could always count on not just a great meal but a shared perspective on how and where a particular ingredient fit best on a menu, with a dish or into our lives. How was Chris dealing with the high price of beef tenderloin? She was braising short ribs and serving them with spicy sweet potatoes. Was she doing anything really great with the first morels of the season? Yes! Her menu included a Lamb and Morel Ragout with Shallots and Golden Beets. What was she doing with the bumper crop of arugula this year? She was making Rocket Flatbread with a locally made gouda-style cheese.
When I first got to know Chris, we were both dabbling in that peculiar and now somewhat historic school of French cookery known as Nouvelle Cuisine. By now, it has been dismissed as completely passé, but then Nouvelle Cuisine was truly nouvelle, and being practiced by the great French chefs Michel Guérard and Roger Vergé. We followed them the way some people follow sports stars. For them, the nouvelle movement was about being faithful to ingredients, and not hiding them behind a façade of traditional presentation. It was about economy in preparation, creativity and spontaneity. For us, it was about having fun in the kitchen.
I remember both of us taking sheer delight in the ingredients that local farmers and fishermen delivered to our back doors. "Try these oysters!" I would say when she came to my restaurant. I wasn't showing off my technique; it was about the oysters themselves small Pacifics still bathed in the cold, clear water in which they were grown. "How did you like those salad greens?" she would say when I came to her restaurant. Each leaf seemed to have come from a different plant; there were nasturtium leaves, opal basil leaves, tiny leaves of red romaine lettuce. "My mother grew them," she would say.
Now, browsing through her cookbook, I am transported to that serene room above the gas station in Eastsound, where I ate wonderfully crisp calamari and sipped an equally crisp sancerre. When I read about the mashed potatoes, I taste the ground of Orcas Island from which the potatoes she served me were pulled. I remember the frizzled leeks that garnished them, brittle as burnt sugar.
I suppose what I love most about this book, though, is not the nostalgia it evokes. What thrills me is the promise of good times to come, re-creating at home the dishes that still define her gem of a restaurant.
Greg Atkinson is a contributing editor for Food Arts magazine and a culinary consultant. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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