The HANDBASKET Chronicles

For a long time, I yearned for a medium to muse on food, drink, service, and culture; but I never really anticipated that I would be pressed into a weekly essay (aka “e-mail blast”) to try to drum up business for our little HANDBASKET project in a effort to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on our company — to maintain our core staff, to support our vendors, to try to spotlight some of our partners, and to keep the wheels turning. Who knew it would go on so long?! And still, there’s no end in sight.

As I have always believed (though the last few months have truly tested me), nothing is ever all bad or all good. I have enjoyed this creative process, pivoting on a dime, and engaging with our clientele in new ways. For posterity’s sake, here are the collected blasts; you may take them for whatever they’re worth…

April 22nd 2020

The days are getting longer, warmer, and sunnier… and it’s got me craving barbecue and pink wine!!!

This week you can get mesquite-smoked Carlton Farm Pork Spare Ribs and Pasture-Raised Beef Brisket plus newly released Brooks 2019 rosé delivered to your neighborhood or doorstep. Also available are wonderful soulful accompaniments like mac and mornay with herb cornbread crumbs, James Beard’s old-fashioned Oregon potato salad, classic wedge salad, cider-braised greens with cippolini onions, berry trifles, and more.

Or perhaps you’d prefer Ventura’s rightly famous chicken enchiladas in creamy tomatillo sauce with rice and beans… or Chef Connor’s over-the-top lasagna with house-ground brisket and pork shoulder… or a spring greens salad from our friends at Gathering Together Farm down in the valley.

We also have dumplings, cabbage rolls, and “Herring Under a Fur Coat” from Kachka; gorgeous seasonal arrangements from Blüm Floral Design; farmstead cheeses from Cow Bell Cheesemongers; single origin coffee from Spella Caffè; decadent cakes from Dream Cakes; a lovely selection of wines from CorksCru; fantastic Oregon beers… and toilet paper!

Rest assured that all food is prepared with immense amounts of love and the utmost care by healthy cooks in our exceedingly sanitary commercial kitchen, which is closed to the general public.

Devil’s Food is committed to keeping our employees on the payroll through the duration of this crisis and supporting our vendors, purveyors, and industry colleagues as much as possible during these challenging times; your patronage and support play a big part in that.

Order online for curbside pickup 3 days a week at Devil’s Food in North Portland, Freeland Spirits in Northwest Portland, Greatroom in Beaverton, and Ironlight in Lake Oswego or affordable doorstep delivery on Thursdays.

Thank you from the bottom of our hearts,
James and the Devil’s Food Catering team

April 27th 2020

Early on in this pandemic, somewhere between the NBA suspending their season and the start of Oregon’s Stay Home Save Lives campaign, I remember one of the moments that shook me the most was when the country of France closed their restaurants. Nowhere in the world is food more closely tied to identity than it is in France. I knew then that this was a very serious situation that had the potential to wreak havoc on our nations, our businesses, our bodies, and our souls.

But… we will endure. The human spirit will always endure. And one of the best ways that I know of to buoy my spirits in difficult times is the preparation and enjoyment of classic French dishes.

A couple weeks ago, the good folks at Zenner’s Sausage Company (who have served Portland since 1927) reached out to me to express their excitement for the HANDBASKET concept and a desire to be part of it. I could think of no better dish to showcase their wares than Choucroute Garnie — the king of Alsatian cuisine. So, we ordered in a few cases of cabbage, chopped it up, and set it aside to begin the miraculous transformation to sauerkraut. Now, 2 weeks later; we rinse it, braise it in white wine and spices, and load it full of porky goodness courtesy of Zenner’s. With a glass of one of our featured Rieslings (or a cold pilsner), some potatoes and mustard; there is almost nothing finer.

In addition to Choucroute Garnie, you’ll find many more French favorites on this week’s menu, such as silky Chicken Liver Mousse, exotic Bouillabaisse, regal Beef Bourguignon, our ever-wonderful Cow Bell Cheeseboard, and yes… house-made ECLAIRS! Also we’ve added yet another partner: Dayton, Oregon’s Durant Olive Mill. Now through HANDBASKET, you’ll be able to get their fantastic Arbequina oil in 375 mL bottles, as well as, their cute-as-can-be stacking varietal sampler set. (ahem, awesome Mother’s Day gift alert, hint hint.)

And speaking of Mother’s Day, be sure to check back next week for a myriad of mom-pleasing items like quiche, bake-in-the-morning cinnamon rolls, hand-squeezed mimosa kits, and more.

May 5th 2020

Some kind of holiday celebrating mothers has been around since the times of the Ancient Greeks and Romans… But our current iteration dates to the early 20th century, when after 10 years of lobbying states and the nation, Anna Jarvis succeeded in getting Woodrow Wilson to proclaim the 2nd Sunday of May henceforth Mother’s Day in 1914. (Jarvis’s mother had been a nurse in the Civil War). In an almost unbelievable twist of fate, Jarvis was arrested in 1925 for disturbing the peace; she had become disillusioned with the commercialization of the holiday.

A century later, the commercialism survives, but her observation still rings true as ever: a mother “is the person who has done more for you than anyone in the world.” And for that, I say we should fête them with Champagne and flowers!

This week, we are proud to offer one of my favorite little grower Champagnes from the village of Cramant: Diebolt-Vallois! Their “Tradition” cuvée is everything you want in a bubbly — fruit, floral notes, bracing acidity, and chalky minerality. And it’s a steal, too, at $56. Wanna go local with your sparkling? We’ve also got 2015 Argyle Vintage Brut. Wanna mix mimosas for Mom in the morning? We’ve got you covered with hand-squeezed juices and a lovely dry Spanish Cava.

Other not-to-be-missed brunch items include Savory Bread Pudding, Petite Quiches, a slew of scintillating salads, Nicoise-Style Stuffed Vegetables, the ever-wonderful Cow Bell Cheese Board, glorious floral arrangements from Blüm (peonies are here!), and this week’s extra special treat from our pastry kitchen: Bake-in-the-Morning Cinnamon Rolls!!!

In addition to all the brunchy goodness, a few of the French favorites are back for a victory lap this week. And I’m telling you, it would be tragic to miss out on the Choucroute Garnie and Riesling experience. Also, the Chicken Liver Mousse is garnering rave reviews.

Still in Cinco de Mayo mode? Ventura is following up his other-worldly enchiladas with a traditional and refined Sopa de Lima; maybe soon we can get him to make his famous Molé Poblano…?

And if you’re looking for more sweet little gifts beyond flowers and Champagne, consider Dayton, Oregon’s Durant Olive Mill. Now through HANDBASKET, you can get their fantastic Arbequina oil in 375 mL bottles, as well as, their cute-as-can-be stacking varietal sampler set.

May 11th 2020

Well, it’s mid May, and it feels as though summer is close. Memorial Day is just around the corner, and we’ve entered the sweet spot for dining al fresco and sleeping with the windows flung fully open. The blooms in the garden are nearing their spectacular peak. In a normal year, school would be almost out, and we’d be plotting our summer vacations.

The recent governor’s address held some good news: Social distancing is working, gatherings of 25 will soon be permissible, hiking trails and tennis courts will likely open shortly, and perhaps we will enjoy some of the best things that Oregon summer has to offer. But governor Brown’s address had more bad news for us to bear as well: social distancing must continue, larger parties will be impossible for the foreseeable future, restaurant servers will be masked, and at any moment the outbreak could flare up again and we could be back “in the weeds”, to borrow a common kitchen phrase.

Yet still, hope springs eternal, and we continue to move forward.

Keep an eye out in the next few weeks for Devil’s Food’s next innovation: the socially-distanced supper club — featuring immersive concepts, even more partnerships and collaborations, luxurious service and table-side preparations, live musicians, sumptuous surroundings, and of course, delicious food! It’s all coming soon…

And to tide you over for now, HANDBASKET is as solid gold good as ever.

You’ve had his pozole, his enchiladas, and his sopa de lima. It’s time to meet the man behind the molé. Ventura Martinez was born in 1963 in Tequila, Mexico. For the last 7 years, he has been the sunshine of the Devil’s Food kitchen — an undimmable light no matter the circumstance. The man we affectionately call ‘Papa’ is a frequent maker of family meal; that is, we regularly delight in his tacos, burritos, sopas, sopes, moles, enchiladas, tamales, and more — our kids clamor for us to bring home his rice and beans. He’s the fastest and best prep chef in the west and one of my favorite people in the universe. We are lucky to eat his beautiful food. I wish you could hear him sing karaoke to his wife, Josie (quite the chef herself!)

Also coming this week is HANDBASKET’s first foray into the flavors of Asia. The DFC classic, Hoisin-Braised Beef Short Ribs with Coconut Sticky Rice and Crispy Shallots is sure to become a new family favorite.

And since our pastry kitchen is not rolling out hundreds of cinnamon rolls this week, we’ve got time to make those fabulous eclairs again. Just when you thought they couldn’t get any better, we’re topping them with Valrhona Pearls — little crunchy spheres of fine French chocolate.

Our friends at Blüm Floral Design are taking a week off after a busy, busy Mother’s Day, but Dream Cakes is back with smaller format cakes for everyday occasions!

May 18th 2020

Quarantine — and the attendant cabin fever — at times gives rise to quirky old parlor games and silly desert island-type questions like “Would You Rather…?” or “If You Could Only Have…?” A recent question put to me by my wife gave me significant pause: “if you could only have one for the rest of life, would you choose potatoes or rice?” At first, I nearly blurted out “potatoes!”; easy, I thought. After all, French fries and mashed potatoes are undoubtedly two of my favorite foods. But then, I reconsidered. I let my mind drift though all the beloved dishes to which rice is so integral. Against my Irish heritage, I answered, “rice.”

Rice was first domesticated in the neolithic age in the Yangtze River Basin in China about 10,000 years ago (give or take a couple millenia). From there, it spread to India and Japan and then around the globe during centuries of trade and exploration. Today it is the most widely consumed food in the world — 487 million metric tons and rising. And no wonder! There are over 40,000 varieties of the grain and countless recipes that employ it in nearly every cuisine.

This week on the HANDBASKET menu, rice plays a crucial role in several dishes: a fragrant basmati provides the base for the Exotically Spiced Lamb Meatballs and Sri Lankan-Style Vegetable Curry. A delightfully chewy sticky rice provides the counterpoint to Char Siu Pork Spare Ribs. And Ventura’s bewitching arroz rojo stars beside refritos and Oaxacan-Style Chicken Molé. Please, won’t you join us on our journey through the world of rice?

If you’ve yet to partake in Ventura’s latest opus, the good news is that you get another chance this week. But wait, there’s more! Let me let you in on a little secret we discovered last week during staff lunch: molé is insanely good on FRIED chicken, too. If you want your chicken molé fried, it can happen… just say so in the text box at the bottom of the order form. You’ll still get the justly famous rice and beans plus tortillas, pickled onions, cotija, and Mama Josie’s hot sauce.

In the coming weeks, our Mexican odyssey with Ventura as our guide will continue with barbacoa, carnitas, and much, much more. But let’s linger here a little with this dish… like a tourist that finds that special place off the well-worn trail.

Also, floral arrangements from Blüm are back, Connor’s lasagna is back (with a new vegetarian option, too), and the DFC Chicken Liver Mousse will remain a permanent fixture — for those of you fretting about your next fix! (It’s okay, my family is also addicted…)

And don’t forget about our scintillating Cow Bell Cheeseboards, lip-smacking wines from CorksCru and others, the finest local craft beers, fantastic olive oil from Durant Olive Mill, and all the hand sanitizer you could possibly need from Freeland Spirits — with the invigorating essence of spearmint.

We’ll get through this yet!

May 26th 2020

It’s so easy to curse globalization these days — a virus emerges at a market in Wuhan, and suddenly the world is brought to its knees. We feel resentment about our long fragile supply chains, and our nations turn inward to protect their citizens. But we should also never cease to marvel at our interconnectedness and all the ways that is has enriched our lives. Exploration, trade, and the exchange of ideas are at the core of what it means to be human and have been so for millenia.

Consider the chile pepper. Imagine Chinese, Korean, Southeast Asian, Indian, African, and Spanish cuisine without chiles! Along with vanilla, chocolate, potatoes, corn, avocado, and many, many other delicious things; peppers were only an American ingredient until the time of Spanish and Portuguese exploration. First domesticated and consumed as early as 7500 BC in Central America, chiles did not make it to South Asia until the 1500s. Before long, the pungent little peppers dispersed along ancient trade routes through Europe, Africa, and the Far East, enlivening cuisines and enriching eating experiences around the globe.

This weeks HANDBASKET menu celebrates chiles in their myriad forms. There’s the rich spice blend that forms the warm backbone of our “Silk Road” Lamb Meatballs; the smoky adobo that makes Ventura’s Birria so hauntingly savory; the grassy green fresh heat burst of shaved jalapeño in our decadent take on Bánh mì; even the hot vinegary kiss of Louisiana-style cayenne-based Crystal on the fried chicken and cauliflower.

Undoubtedly, colonialism and empire were not without their inherent and even unthinkable evils. Many suffered (and still do) during these times of resource extraction, exploitation, and appropriation. But nothing in life is ever all bad or all good. And there are things that we can cherish about our shared history and our shared culture, things that can help us see each other with more human eyes. Food, cuisine is a big one.

If you haven’t had them yet, you get another week to partake in these ridiculously delicious “Silk Road” Lamb Meatballs with Smoked Tomato-Coconut Milk Curry, Ricotta Salata, and Herbed Basmati Rice. And for our vegetarian and vegan friends, there’s the Sri-Lankan-inspired Coconut Milk Vegetable Curry.

Also joining the menu are our signature Bánh mì sandwiches — shmeared with the DFC Chicken Liver Mousse and Spicy Aioli and piled high with Zenner’s Smoked Pork Loin, BBQ Pork Belly, Pickled Carrots & Daikon, Cilantro, and Shaved Jalapeño; Shrimp Rillettes; House-Made Last-of-the-Season Meyer Lemon Curd; 2 new flavors of Nicole’s Incomparable Scones; and perennial favorite Twice-Baked Potatoes!

If you are like I am, you may find yourself saying, “HANDBASKET is wonderful, but when can we have a real dinner party?!” Well, the answer appears to be “now” (for some lucky counties) and “soon” (for mighty Multnomah). Let’s start planning! Imagine enjoying a fine meal and cocktails in your garden with a few close friends or perhaps on the gorgeous rooftop deck of Ironlight, overlooking the Cascades. Clackamas County is in Phase 1, which means you can gather in groups of up to 25 and distantly dine in restaurants. Multnomah will likely join next month. Our top wait staff and event chefs are ready to come to you — in handsome handmade masks and fully compliant with all regulations and guidelines.

Or perhaps you’re not quite at that level of comfort with the reopening thing yet (it’s scary, I know!); consider a customized deluxe delivery, beautifully packaged with everything you need for a little soiree on your own terms…

May 30th 2020

The June strawberries of the Pacific Northwest are one of life’s truest pleasures. Smaller than most, a deep velvety red throughout, fragrant… you can smell them at the market before you see them! The first real fruit of the season, they are delicate and short-lived — gone almost as quickly as they came. With their onset so robustly welcomed and their beauty so brief, they strike an almost poignant chord in me in a way very similar to autumn. There is almost no greater gustatory pleasure than their intense, sweet, earthy “strawberry-ness” especially when enjoyed on a long light evening approaching the solstice.

Two dishes on this week’s HANDBASKET menu celebrate our local Hood strawberries. We are pleased to debut a lovely Strawberry-Beet Salad with Gathering Together Farm Chicories, Pistachios, Ricotta Salata, and Pink Peppercorn Vinaigrette and of course are absolutely thrilled to bring back our signature Strawberry Shortcake with Gently-Macerated Local Berries, Sugar-Kissed Biscuits, and Tarragon Whipped Cream. May they bring you joy!

Beyond strawberries, you’ll notice that this week’s HANDBASKET has lots of fun options for the warmer weather. A Picnic Board of Farmstead Cheeses from Cow Bell, Artisan Cured Meats, Olives, and Dolmas begs to be taken to the park along with our exceptional farm-fresh Crudités and Green Goddess. The ridiculously decadent Devil’s Bánh Mì sandwiches would be a worthy restorative after a hike or a splendid meal along side the Grilled Vegetable Bún Salad. Or maybe you’d like to imagine yourself in a Bavarian biergarten with our classic Pork Schnitzel, some Soft Pretzels, and a bit of James Beard’s Potato Salad…

New to the wine list this week from CorksCru is this elegant bottle of Sauvignon Blanc from amusingly named Les Athletes du Vin in the Loire Valley. I’m having a glass right now as I write this email, and I can tell you it has the acidity to cut through Schnitzel, the powerful perfume to pair with our Vietnamese dishes, and the minerality to ponder on its own. Do yourself a favor and pick some up — it’s a serious steal at $20 a bottle. In fact, why not get 6? Seriously though, why not?

Also from our beverage program this week, is the best Horchata you’ve ever had — silky smooth, not too sweet, delicately spiced with cinnamon, vanilla, and a hint of orange flower. For this week’s “HANDBASKET Hack”, add a shot of dark rum for an easy and bewitching cocktail.

Perhaps we can entice Pete, our operations and bar manager, to start kitting up some more of his sophisticated concoctions…?

June 6th 2020

My grandmother — a matriarch for the ages (whose 105th birthday would have been this week) — used to be fond of saying, “life is short; sometimes you have to start with dessert.” So, in her honor, this week’s letter starts with dessert.

We’ve certainly learned over the last few months how precious life is, and if you’ve been partaking in HANDBASKET, I’m sure you’re now familiar with what our pastry kitchen can do. Welcome to the DFC lineup this beauty — a Dark Chocolate Tart topped with a dome of Coffee Mousse buttressed with Candied Almond and adorned with those darn addictive Valrhona Pearls, 2 tarts to an order. This gorgeous little confection is definitely here to stay; the trouble is: what do we call it? Perhaps a naming contest is in order…? Bottle of Champagne to the winner!

I think all of our vegetable dishes are truly delicious, but there’s a soft spot in my heart for our Braised Greens. Sadly, greens, it seems, are under-loved. And so, in hopes that the reader might be won over, I offer this hastily composed verse:

Sometimes in life, the body and soul will hunger as one.
But be not afraid! There are things to be done.
Get thee a bowl of the sweetest braised greens,
Join with slow-roasted onions, you’ll see what I mean.
Breathe deep that aroma on the billowing steam.
Grab a spoon. Prepare to swoon.
Surrender yourself — not a moment too soon.
Let the magic of this humble dish
Make good your stomach’s noble wish.

Well, we too are throwing our hat into the take-home cocktail mix ring. Over the years, our bar program has won praise for its sophisticated offerings — a smart wine list, local craft beers, and balanced, never cloying cocktails. Now you can enjoy some of our finest creations in the comfort of your home. Barman Pete’s Mix of the Week this week is one we created for the Literary Arts gala a few years ago. A heady and haunting concoction of Pineapple, Amontillado Sherry, Pomegranate Reduction, and Lemon; “The Caged Bird” sings indeed when mixed equal parts with a good silver rum. We’ve done some hands-on research and have found it chirps along pretty well with vodka and bourbon, too… Grab a pint for $12 and shake up 8 or so cocktails for yourself — we’ll supply the amarena cherries to garnish as well.

June 14th 2020

Man tamed fire at some point between 500,000 and 1 million years ago and completely changed the course of human evolution. The ability to control fire allowed our ancient kin to venture into less hospitable climates, keep warm, ward off would-be predators, and cook their food. Communal fires encouraged folks to gather together and stay up into the night. I like to imagine some type of pre-language game of charades happening.

Grilling as we know it (the kind depicted on the picnic tin above, which I inherited from my Great Aunt Alice) is much, much newer. In fact, the backyard BBQ grill was not commonplace at all until a Chicago metal worker named George Stephen adapted a kettle-shaped buoy and subsequently started the Weber-Stephen Company. This new easily-produced style of charcoal grill, the abundance of space in the suburbs, and the widespread availability of meat led to a booming popularity of grilling in the 1950s. For some reason, though much of the historical housework falls to mom, dear old dad traditionally gets the pleasure of firing up the grill and searing steaks for friends and family.

In honor of Father’s Day this week we are offering a couple of fun and festive grill kits. For the beef-lover, a gorgeously marbled 16 oz. St Helens Beef Ribeye — PNW grass-fed and grain-finished — with our house seasoning salt, foolproof instructions, a bimetallic stem thermometer, Mâitre d’Hôtel Butter, Horseradish Cream, Chimichurri, and Grilled Onions. And for the more swashbuckling, there are Kebabs aplenty; add a side of Shirin Polo (Persian party rice) and house-baked flatbreads with creamy hummus for a true Sultan-like experience.

If you’ve not had our newest vegetarian entrée addition, you get another chance. These Mushroom Timbale are fantastic! A ‘drum’ of Wild Mushrooms is crowned with Potatoes Anna and accompanied by Cauliflower Velouté, Pan-Seared Royal Trumpet Mushrooms, Saba, and Micro Herbs.

Think you can plate your HANDBASKET dinner as beautifully as Chef Connor plated this dish? Show us! Tag your pretty plates #handbaskethomeplate. Each week, we’ll fête one lucky winner with a bottle of bubbly. And speaking of contest winners, our new domed desserts have been duly dubbed “Pantheons” henceforth. The Mocha Pantheon gives way to a Strawberry-Lemon Pantheon this week. Wait until you see it! Yowza!!!

From the cellar this week, I’d be remiss not to mention the Bordeaux buddy that would like to befriend your ribeye steak. The 2016 Chateau La Grace Dieu “Les Menuts” hails from a small family estate just outside of Pomerol. This St. Emilion Right Bank beaut is 65% Merlot, 30% Cab Franc, 5% Cab Sauvignon and 100% jammin’! If I have my druthers, I’ll be slurping this down with my steak Sunday night.

And on the cocktail side, we proudly offer up one of our Devil’s Food classics, “The County Cooler”: a spot of Triple-Strength Black Tea, Orange, Lemon, Cinnamon Bitters, and Cane Syrup; just add your favorite Bourbon… Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there!

June 23rd 2020

“My only aversion is sweet and savory combos,” I remember him blithely saying as I set down a plate of House-Baked Flatbreads with Roasted Pear, Gorgonzola, Pink Peppercorn, and White Balsamic Reduction at our initial consultation for his big upcoming wedding. We had otherwise hit it off. He did like our Pear Pizzettas, of course (everyone does), but soon I was straining to eliminate all the sweet-savory combos from the revision that I intended to send to him.

Turns out, sweet and savory is all over our menus: Fried Chicken with Hot Honey, Sherry-Glazed Quails stuffed with Sausage and Prunes, Grilled Pork Chops with Peach Jam and Spiced Crème Fraîche. But it’s not just our menus, it’s a preponderance of dishes the world over. And for good reason! These flavors enhance each other greatly! There are the readily apparent instances like Shirin Polo: Saffron-Scented Rice with Nuts, Dried Fruits, and Candied Carrot and Orange Peel; or Pok Pok’s famous fish sauce wings; or the staple General Tsao’s Chicken. But then there are the more incognito but incredibly ubiquitous, like ketchup on a cheeseburger or BBQ sauce with smoked meats. Even the seemingly most robust of dishes, French Onion Soup, relies on a balance of sweet caramelized onions and deep, rich beef broth.

We are biologically programmed to like the taste of sweetness because sweet foods give us a quick burst of energy, which was incredibly important to our ancestors. We crave salt for its essential minerals. And umami appeals to us for its nutrient density. Layer these flavors, and our brains can hardly get enough.

Try our Smoked Pork Loin with Bing Cherry Mostarda this week for a reminder of how lovely the combo is. Or if you missed it last week, I’ve got to tell you that the Lamb Kebabs with Cucumber Yogurt alongside the outrageously delicious Shirin Polo was my favorite plate of food in a month. And you’re in luck, they’re back for a victory lap this week…

You may have noticed that for the time being, we’re nixing Saturday HANDBASKET because… It’s time to host a dinner party!

Small dinners are our favorite. They allow for special attention to details and fine service, while also still of a scale to wow guests in a way that is seldom achievable in the restaurant setting. We’ve had plenty of time over the last few months to put together quite a few fun new menus with immersive concepts to transport you to another time and place. Please inquire if you’ve got a special occasion coming up or just want to have a fun party. We’re ready to serve you! And we’re fully compliant with Phase 1 regulations and have implemented additional company protocol designed to keep you safe, healthy, and well fed.

June 28th 2020

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

If I were perhaps just slightly more daring, I might wade into the torrents of the twin crises facing our nation as it nears its 244th birthday. But I fear, for me at least, that is a fool’s errand. Suffice it to say, that that second sentence of the Declaration of Independence is one of the best bits ever writ, yet 12 score and 4 years later we still clearly have a ways to go toward reaching that noble goal.

What I would like to point out and acknowledge — as we offer a glut of classic American foods for the 4th of July holiday — is what a tremendous debt we owe to African American cooks for what we so instinctively consider our national cuisine.

From the beginning, slaves fed the founding fathers. Hercules was the famous chef of George Washington — pursued when he escaped, his cooking was so fine. Thomas Jefferson took James Hemings with him to France to learn from French caterers and pastry chefs and then grudgingly granted him his freedom a decade later, only after he had trained his brother to take his place. From the founding of our country and the first staffing of the White House, Black chefs and cooks like Hercules and James Hemings, Dolly Johnson, Lizzie McDuffie, and Zephyr Wright have served the presidents their favorite dishes. Washington loved hoe cakes; Jefferson, mac and cheese; Monroe, spoon bread; FDR, pigs’ feet and chicken Country Captain; LBJ fried chicken and peach cobbler; Jimmy Carter, fried chicken and greens.

Soul food (a term popularized by Malcom X FYI) is the story of making unwanted ingredients exceedingly delicious. Tough and sparse cuts of meat like brisket and ribs could be smoked for hours to become blissful barbecue. Same goes for chitlins and collard greens, cornbread, sweet potatoes, etc. Fried chicken and rich foods were especially valued because they packed enough calories to carry you through a long day’s work on the plantation.

Devil’s Food Catering has its roots in South Carolina and Kansas City — 2 bastions of African American cooking. We, as a company, owe an immense amount to the people that pioneered these foods and techniques in the face of incredible suffering. Anything I say here is impossibly insufficient, but I hope and pray that we honor them with our actions and furthermore that someday our society will truly achieve the aspirations of the Declaration of Independence.

As I mentioned above, we’re serving up Americana aplenty this week: Pulled Pork and House-Smoked Brisket, Fried Chicken (as always), Baked Beans and Slaw, but there’s also an exciting new ingredient making its 2020 debut… PEACHES!

Our classic Grilled Peach Salad joins the HANDBASKET hubbub for the first time (atop Gathering Together Farm Greens, Black Sheep Creamery Feta, Shaved Fennel, Pistachios, and Mint Vinaigrette); as does Nicole’s luscious Peach Cobbler — or for the gluten-freedom-fighters, Peach Crisp!

Lastly but not least, I’ve got to mention Pete’s new cocktail,”The Knights of Ni” — an enchanting concoction built around a house-made Strawberry-Basil-Balsamic Shrub. Mix just an ounce of shrub with a shot of London gin, a splash of soda, and some fresh strawberries and basil (all included in the kit but the gin); and you’ll be pleased as a pig in… what shall we say, mud?

July 7th 2020

To our vegan and lactose-intolerant friends: we love you and we support you, but I must issue a DISCLAIMER: today I’m writing passionately about cheese!

From time to time, it has been pointed out to me that our menus are rife with dairy and especially cheese. But it almost couldn’t be otherwise… When my wife and I first moved to Portland 16 summers ago for me to take the chef position at PPS’s trail-blazing farm-to-school pilot project, I had to find extra work on the weekends to make ends meet. Thankfully the popularity of the slow food movement opened many doors to us, and I was able to snag a few shifts peddling cheddar at the highly-esteemed Steve’s Cheese. Little did I know that my cheesemongering career would well outlast my 3 years at the elementary school, but I adored my time behind the cheese counter and, through Steve’s and the old Square Deal Wine Company, I rubbed elbows with many of the brightest lights in Portland food and drink.

The great American intellectual, Clifton Fadiman, summed it up beautifully when he wrote, “cheese is milk’s leap toward immortality.” Indeed, think of the way we wax poetic on the subject. Sure, we appreciate milk and we adore butter, but we hold forth on cheese, elevate it to an idea — we idolize cheese.

Charles De Gaulle, the French Statesman, once said, “How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?”, so fiercely do the French form loyalties to their local specialty. In truth, France has more than 1000 distinct cheeses — from 80 pound wheels of Gruyere to 3 ounce crottins, from buttery Camembert to ancient Roquefort.

Though England and Ireland have strong dairy cultures, Spain has it standouts, and the U.S. has become quite the artisan cheese hub since the 1970s; only one other country truly rivals France, and that’s Italy. Parmigiano-Reggiano is almost undisputedly the king of cheeses. The Italian peninsula also offers punchy pecorinos, piquant Gorgonzola, funky Fontina, delicate Robiolas, and a great smattering of cheeses ideal for cooking, such as ricotta and mozzarella. It has for the last few years, been a very vogue little formaggio, but if you haven’t had the pleasure yet, please let me introduce you to Burrata — mozzarella’s exceedingly sexy cousin. This purse of stretched mozzarella filled with cultured cream and little chunks of delicate curd is an unparalleled summer standout. I can imagine almost nothing more delicious alongside heirloom tomatoes with a bit of flaky sea salt and some extra virgin olive oil. This week you can get Burrata from HANDBASKET, atop our Heirloom Tomato Panzanella Salad. Believe me, you don’t want to miss it!

Also new this week are two of my favorite summer side dishes: luscious, traditional Ratatouille and Roasted Sweet Corn with Bing Cherries, Curly Endive, Crispy Shallots, and Basil Vinaigrette.

And… our love affair with Mexico resumes, as Ventura and team dish up NY Strip Steak Tacos with Minced Onion, Grilled Onion, Cilantro, Salsas, House-Made Tortillas, and his famous Rice and Beans. Ay, ay, ay. Perhaps one of these days, the sun will come out to stay, and when it does, won’t it be nice to sip horchata on the back porch and share tacos with friends?

July 14th 2020

HAPPY BASTILLE DAY, FELLOW FRANCOPHILES!

I must admit, as a kid (even though I had a burning desire to be fancy), I didn’t have much of a concept of French food. I could conjure an image of a French chef, of course, with a pencil mustache, a cravat, and a big poofy hat — but I didn’t know a velouté from a vol-au-vent. It wasn’t until college — and really later in college when I met (my now wife) Becky — that I began to know the world of French cuisine.

Becky worked at a fancy little French restaurant called the Bleu Jacket, back in Lawrence, Kansas, where we went to school. The Bleu Jacket had a real French chef, determined not to compromise for Kansans. It was there that I first had things like Vichysoisse, Quails stuffed with Prunes, and Chocolate Souffle. Later when Becky went to study in a small city in Eastern France for a year, I worked 2 jobs 6 days a week, to save up money to go visit her. That was the fall of 2002 and one of the most memorable 3 weeks of my life — flying over the Atlantic for the first time, navigating my way across Paris, meeting Becky that night at the Metro station in Montmartre, walking together endlessly through the city, dining and drinking like Parisians. I feel so lucky now to have been young and in love in France in the last vestiges of the previous age — before I had a cell phone, before the real omnipresence of the internet; a time of mystery and romance.

A couple years later, I decided to go to culinary school on a lark, and Becky moved with me to New England, drilled me with flashcards of knife cuts and mother sauces. Before long, we were engaged and moving across the country again, this time to Portland. I guess, in some ways, French food helped lay the foundation of our relationship all those years ago…

Ah. Thanks for bearing with me while I reminisce. I’ve found it can be good medicine at times, during these days of uncertainty and upheaval, to remember how sweet life can be. I imagine that you, too, have experienced moments like these, where everything feels perfect — if only for an instant. And perhaps those memories can help push us through this hard time. And maybe, if you’re anything like me, some good food will be the thing to take you back…

In honor of Bastille Day, we’re offering a few fun French dishes this week. Classic Salade Niçoise makes its HANDBASKET debut: Olive Oil-Poached Oregon Albacore with Fingerling Potatoes, Haricot Vert, Heirloom Tomato, Niçoise Olives, Hard-Boiled Egg, Gathering Together Farm Greens, and a simple vinaigrette. It’s a perfect meal for a summer evening.

Also on the menu: our signature Chicken Liver Mousse, Ratatouille, and… what could be better after storming the Bastille than that most prototypical Parisian restorative, Soupe a l’Oignon?!

Cap all that off with a Chocolate-Peanut Butter “Pantheon”, and I guarantee you’ll be feeling the spirit.

From the bar this week, we’re pleased to offer Soter’s 2019 Planet Oregon Sparkling Rosé — a certifiably sustainable, absolutely undeniably pleasant little bubbler, ripe with notes of strawberry, citrus, and flowers. It would be perfect alongside ANYTHING.

And barman Pete, is mixing up one of our favorite cocktails of the season, “The Summer Holiday”: Gin, Salted Lemon, Cane Syrup, Mint, a dash of Absinthe, and Club Soda. We provide everything but the gin. Let me tell you, it’s especially good with Freeland!

July 20th 2020

Music and food have been my two great crutches during these challenging times.  I guess that when things start to seem somewhat bleak — a little cruel, a little lonely — I search for glimmers of shared culture. Certainly, music in its myriad forms along with cuisine and all our rituals around meals are two of humanity’s greatest achievements.

I’ve loved classical music since I was a little kid (recall my childhood aspirations of sophistication), and I have been so tickled that our 3 year-old son himself has become infatuated with the symphony — via the books The Philharmonic Gets Dressed and The Child’s Introduction to the Orchestra and pieces like “Peter and the Wolf” and Benjamin Britten’s “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra”. And so it is with great joy, that Devil’s Food is sponsoring the Wednesday night Supper Time Piece and Sunday Brunch with Suzanne Nance on 89.9 KQAC for the month of July.

Listening to the recent All-Classical radio programming selected specifically for meal times got me thinking about the relationship between food and music. Historically, entertainment has long been part of convivial dining. The ancient Greeks liked a little flute with their legumes and sardines. The Romans, as with most everything, opted for something more elaborate as they lounged on their triclinia — flute, water organ, lyre, and choral music, too. Medieval English banquets featured the music of French troubadours and of musicians riffing on the sophisticated sounds of Arabia overheard and brought home during the crusades.

In modern times, the Eurasian tradition of music at dinner took hold in America in the late 19th century. Though it was not popular with everyone (some patrons yearned for peace and quiet), it spread quickly. Even still there was not always consensus; fights might break out around the diner jukebox for instance. Alinea (perhaps the U.S.’s best restaurant) has famously eschewed music in the dining room because they think it interferes with the experience. But it can also add so much to the experience! Did you know that studies have shown music can have subliminal effects on not only our pace and amount of eating, but also our perception of flavors?! I love to recall the early days of Kachka, back in the small shotgun space on Grand, tossing back glasses of vodka and stuffing myself with caviar blinis while raucous Russian pop music blared over the speakers — it felt like we were getting the true experience.

Whatever your feeling about music at restaurants (I have bad times, too!), I hope you are finding the things that feed your soul.

I especially like the artwork up top (a 20th century work by the Iraninan artist Ibrahim Jabbar-Beik), not only for the depiction of the musical festivities, but also because I can totally imagine eating our Shirin Polo and Kebabs in such an environment. And if you didn’t have them during the first go-round, you’re fortunate to get another crack. One of our most beloved clients put in a special request for them…

Also, joining the menu this week are a couple of equally lavish salads celebrating the bounty of summer. The first is a powerful portion of Grilled Peaches, Charred Shishito Peppers, Arugula, Prosciutto, Pine Nuts, and Basil Vinaigrette topped with an entire Burrata to unlock, yourself. The second, a take on classic succotash: Roasted Sweet Corn, Broad Beans, Heirloom Tomato, Zucchini, Scallion, and Thyme Vinaigrette — it’s anything but “sufferin”.

July 28th 2020

I must confess, we fled the hot city for the relative cool of the coast this weekend. As we were cruising down the road toward Cape Meares Monday morning — in full sun, with the windows down, the radio blaring the Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society, nibbling croissants and nursing a latte from the coffee shop in Wheeler — it seemed we had managed one of those magical moments of pure bliss. Listening to the lyrics that I had heard a thousand times before (god save strawberry jam and all the different varieties!), I thought about what I had planned to address in this week’s letter: heirloom produce, heritage livestock, and the things that we choose to pass down.

Heirloom fruits and vegetables (and flowers, for that matter, too) are historic cultivars that have been passed down from generation to generation because of their intrinsic value — an especially sweet strawberry, for instance, or a potato that does particularly well in a certain landscape. Likewise heritage breeds of chickens, cows, and pigs are prized for unique reasons. Long ago, before the advent of widespread trade and quick travel, these cultivars were associated with specific places and ethnic cultures and gave the resulting local dishes that employed them a terroir that is no longer achievable.

After the Second World War, technology and commercialism became the driving forces behind agriculture, just as they did in many other parts of society. Hybrid plants were created that could withstand pests and pesticides, droughts, mechanical-harvesting, and travel… and still sport a shelf-life after all that! Now clearly, we have made significant strides in feeding the hungry and extending the seasons; but along the way, we sacrificed flavor and depth of experience.

Luckily for us, there was a mystical time called the 1970s and a rebirth of interest in old foods and artisan practices. Today, we have available to us a plethora of heirloom tomatoes and other vegetables like we see in the Devil’s Food and HANDBASKET menus; and we have cool ranchers like Lan-Roc Farms raising heritage hogs (whose chops we also feature this week). Menus across the country proudly proclaim the provenance of their produce, and some farmers border on celebrity. Over the last couple decades we have collectively reassessed what matters to us in terms of eating.

Now, if you will permit me to go one step further, I believe that there may be a small parallel in this to our current societal reckoning and potentially a lesson for us here, as well. And to my mind, the lesson is this: that maybe the idea of heirloom vegetables — that we can choose what is worth passing on to the next generation and rationally discard that which doesn’t make the cut — can serve as a guiding principle going forward, as we sort through the complexities of our history. For example, perhaps we can condemn colonialism but manage to keep the gin & tonic and the banh mi. And perhaps we can acknowledge that we have inherited a broken system desperately in need of revision without further breaking it. For when times are hard, let us soften our hearts and cling to that which is beautiful and good and true.

We welcome to HANDBASKET this week several fun and delicious new items: the aforementioned Lan-Roc Pork Chops — brined, seared, and served with a sensational Peach Mostarda; a Grilled NY Strip of St. Helens Beef with Sauce Bordelaise (both the steak and chops are left rare for you to reheat to your temp of choice); Potatoes Anna (!); and our signature take on my mom’s favorite candy bar, the Almond Joy…. ours is called the Almond ECSTASY: a dense, fudgy brownie topped with coconut meringue, a salted almond, and dark chocolate ganache.

AND believe it or not, we’re doing PNW Oysters on the Half-Shell for pick-up and delivery. The secret is all in the preparation. We shuck ’em and pack them in ice (reserving all that good liquor), scrub the shells, and send them to you ready for reassembly with plenty of lemon wedges and champagne-shallot mignonette! $32/dozen. Yum, slurps away!

August 3rd 2020

I’m gonna try to keep it (relatively) short and sweet this week because the fam and I are headed out the door to the mountains for some eagerly anticipated R&R. And it just so happens that we’ll be staying at the site of one of Devil’s Food Catering’s greatest triumphs in recent memory, the magical House on Metolius.

Weddings are always complex events; there are a lot of traditional trappings and numerous service points to nail: intricate set-ups, precisely (or imprecisely) orchestrated ceremonies, cocktail hours, room flips, dinner service, toasts, cake cutting, copious bartending, sometimes a late night snack, and more — not to mention the emotional charge present throughout. Now take all of that but spread the festivities over 3 days and put it all about 3 hours away from our kitchen; that’s exactly what we did 3 summers ago for a beloved client at this special spot in the Central Oregon Cascades. An event of this nature takes extensive and diligent planning. One must rent a refrigerated truck, arrange ice deliveries, book lodging for staff, coordinate staff travel, and of course, design menus for a half-dozen meals, draw up floor-plans, and cobble together tables, chairs, dishes, flatware, glassware, and linens from a handful of event rental companies. Once all that is done over the course of several months, there is really nothing to it but to do it.

I have always been exceedingly lucky to work with great people. Catering is a unique business and requires a certain skill set. One must know about food and drink, that’s a given. One must be congenial — or have the hospitality bone, as we say. One must be willing to work long, arduous hours when it is called for, be immune to stress in the most pressure-packed moments, and always look to identify and solve problems before they happen. For a big event like we’re talking about you need many of these people. In the lead up, beyond the planner; there’s the staffing manager, who books all the event staff; the operations and bar manager, who acquires all the gear and beverages; the chef, sous-chef, pastry chef, and their half-dozen cooks who procure and prepare all the food Portland-side. Then once at the venue, to serve a wedding reception of 250 requires 2 event chefs, 2 event managers, 10 cooks, 20 servers, and 6 bartenders. While it’s true that some staff shoulder more of the fine details and direction, the success of the event demands every last person do their part.

I am happy to say that that weekend almost exactly 3 years ago was a smashing success (in fact, the bride and her mother remain clients to this day and are frequent partakers of HANDBASKET.) None of it would have been possible without an amazing, dynamic, and dedicated team. And it because of that same dream team, that I am able to return to House on Metolius this week as a guest with my wife and son… and not worry about a darn thing.

Thank you, fellow Devil’s Foodies. I’m so happy to be on this crazy journey with the lot of you. I’ll see you next week.

And you needn’t worry either!  HANDBASKET rolls on in my absence with lots of delicious new dishes! Joining the menu this week, we’ve got traditional Shrimp Cocktail (even better than you remember); refreshing Chilled Corn Bisque with Cotija, Smoked Paprika, and Micro-Cilantro; the classic Mexican dish, Red Snapper Veracruz with Scallion Rice and House-Fried Tortilla Chips; Spanish-Style Beef Albondigas; Spiced Chocolate Cakes with Rum Caramel, Whipped Cream, and Pepita Brittle; and a Peaches ‘n’ Cream “Pantheon”.

With all that summery South-of-the-Border fare, do yourself a favor and pick up barman Pete’s new cocktail mix of the moment: “The Amateur Ornithologist”: a sophisticated riff on the Paloma with tequila, fresh grapefruit, sage-infused honey, and volcanic black sea salt. You only need provide the tequila (or mezcal!)

Last but not least, have you had our picnic board yet?! Summer doesn’t last forever, you know…

August 11th 2020

“Who would say that pleasure is not useful?” once rebutted Charles Eames during a cross-examination of his sometimes whimsical design philosophy. And to my mind, he could not have been more right. At the risk of sounding like a hedonist, I would even say that pleasure is the whole point… is it not?

Early in college, I made the decision to study Classical Antiquities because it encompassed all my interests in one tidy little major: history, literature, art, architecture, language, philosophy, etc. — albeit almost entirely of the Greek and Roman variety. But as I learned more and more about them, I became fascinated by the ancient Romans, especially of the period around the demise of the republic and the rise of the empire (they’re so much like us!). Now, I’ll try to be concise, as I am sure some of you are nodding off already… During this time, there were two competing major philosophies: Stoicism, which was all about virtue, and Epicureanism. I, myself, was wholeheartedly taken by the Epicureans, who believed that freedom from pain (i.e.: to be at ease) was the ultimate goal. Lucretius’s “On the Nature of Things” has provided me quite a bit to ponder for many years. I thought of this particular passage often on our trip to the magical Metolius and surrounding areas last week:

“O heart of man, how pitiful and blind, In what benightedness our time so short is squandered,
And not to see that our nature yearns for this alone: to enjoy a sense of ease, free from care.
…….
When friends in the long grass will lie at ease, in the shade of a tall tree at the riverside,
Their bodies refreshed and gladdened, at no great cost, most pleasantly when the weather smiles and the season sprinkles the meadow with fresh and lusty flowers.”

In trying times, a little respite can go a long way. With no internet, no phone service, and no TV all last week, surrounded by nature at its most spectacular, we almost forgot about all the pain of the pandemic and the politics of the day. Returning this week, I feel all the better for it.

I sincerely hope that you are finding the things that make you happy and refresh your spirits. If we here at Devil’s Food can play a small role in nourishing your soul, we are thrilled to do so.

Now because I was gone last week, I didn’t get to partake in HANDBASKET, so please indulge me while the most recent menu takes a victory lap this week.

I did hear from several sources that the Red Snapper Veracruz is one of the best HANDBASKET offerings to date! I’ll be ordering some, I know, and washing it down with “The Amateur Ornithologist” — hopefully on a temperate evening in the backyard, letting the vacation vibes linger for as long as they may…