Some really cool treats, in plenty of time for Halloween

October 12, 2011

I want to tell you about a really cool gig I had, which led me to discover some really cool treats that I think you’ll enjoy knowing about.

Last January, I was hired by Cooking Light magazine to help with their annual Taste Test Awards. My job was to nominate five artisanal food products from the northwest, Alaska, and Hawaii (others were doing other regions) in each of five categories – cheese; meats; beer, wine, and spirits; condiments; sweets; and a “wild card” category for things that didn’t fit the other categories. The nominees would then be tasted by the Cooking Light staff and winners would be featured in the October issue of the magazine (pictured and, not coincidentally, on newsstands now).

This basically meant that I got to contact the northwest’s best specialty food producers, ask them to send samples of their products, taste them, and pick my favorites.

How fun is that, right?

So that meant that every day for a couple of weeks, five to ten packages arrived – every day – each laden with even more amazing delicacies than the last.

Incredible small-batch liqueurs, scotch, and vodka (including the absolutely heavenly Napa Vodka, which makes an awesome martini, pictured with the magazine – details about Napa Vodka below)! All sizes and shapes of ooey, gooey cheeses! Mountains of cookies, candies, jams, pickles, and crackers! Bottles and bottles of artisan olive oils! And chocolate – ooh, the chocolate! Piles of it! Heaps!

It was Christmas in January.

I tasted my way through it all, then gave away lots of it, selfishly keeping only my most favorite goodies. Here, then, are my nominees, with Cooking Light’s winners noted. I highly recommend indulging in these treats – for Halloween or any time.

(If you want to see all the winners – not just the ones from my region – visit Cooking Light’s site or grab a copy of the October issue.)

Thank you to all the artisans who generously shared samples of their divine products and helped me with the job – I adored many more items than I could nominate. And a BIG thank you to Ivy Manning, cookbook author and all-around amazingly generous person, who recommended me for the gig.

CHEESES
Belfiore Cheese Company Burrata
Berkeley, California
Sometimes burrata – a ball of fresh mozzarella filled with fresh cream and fresh mozzarella curds – is better in concept than execution. But this one delivers on the promise – it’s creamy, sweet, oozy, and delicate.

*Cooking Light Winner*
Bellwether Farms Whole Milk Ricotta

Sonoma, California
This is a brand new cheese from Bellwether – it’s rich and creamy with a beautiful, sweet dairy flavor. It comes packaged in a little plastic ricotta mold, which is absolutely adorable, but it also means that you can overturn it onto a plate and it’ll keep the pretty basket design. You’ll wonder why you only use ricotta for lasagna.

Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Toma
Point Reyes Station, California
Point Reyes is most known for their blue cheese but Toma is different – a creamy, easy-to-like cow’s milk cheese with a complexity that kind of sneaks up on you, with both earthy and bright notes.

Rogue Creamery Smokey Blue Cheese
Central Point, Oregon
The smokiness isn’t just a gimmick – they do a cold smoke over Pacific Northwest hazelnut shells, which adds a subtly smoky caramel flavor that nicely enhances the salty/sour/creamy quality of the blue cheese.

Willapa Hills Farmstead Cheese
Doty, Washington
Absolutely amazing, kick-ass mostly blue cheeses. I tried three – Two-Faced Blue, a blend of cow and sheep’s milk that’s almost like a cross between a brie and a blue; Big Boy Blue, an in-your-face, super-creamy blue; and Pluvius, not a blue but a very intense and funky cheese. Nine months later, I’m still craving them all.

MEATS
Krave Jerky
Sonoma, California
Beef, pork, and turkey jerky in interesting and creative flavors, like chili lime and curry. One or two of them are a little sweet to me, but overall they’re good, and I especially like the texture – nicely chewy and not at all leathery.

Olympic Provisions Sausages
Portland, Oregon
I tasted their salami nola, saucisson d’Arles, saucisson d’Alsace, and saucisson sec and loved ‘em all. Besides nicely subtle yet complex flavors, the textures are deliciously creamy and chewy.

*Cooking Light Winner*
Gerard & Dominique Smoked Alaskan Scallops

Anacortes, Washington
Plump, sweet, and smoky, these scallops are really tasty and delightfully unusual. Nice in a salad or sautéed with a little olive oil and some veggies, they’re also delicious right out of the package, just add toothpicks. I ate the whole package standing at the kitchen counter!

The Smokery Smoked Salmon
Portland, Oregon
This is maybe the most delicious hot-smoked salmon I’ve ever had (they also do cold-smoked, but I didn’t try it). It’s only mildly smoky, not overly salty, and the salmon is pristine. I tasted several flavors – Maplewine, Old Irish, and White Salmon – and each is done with a deft hand, nuanced but subtle. The salmon is entirely sustainable, caught at sea with hook and line.

Sonoma Foie Gras Smoked Magret
Sonoma, California
Sonoma Foie Gras is a family-owned company that hand-crafts duck products in a French style. Their smoked magret (duck breast) is awesome, and makes you wonder why pork products are getting all the attention these days. Forget the salumi – bring the magret on your next wine country picnic!

WINE, BEER, AND SPIRITS
Clear Creek Distillery Liqueurs
Portland, Oregon
These liqueurs are really special. Intense and authentic fruit flavors without being intensely sweet, as is usually the case with liqueur. They’d be good as cocktail ingredients, as dessert sauces, or on their own, either over ice or in a brandy snifter.

*Cooking Light Winner*
Napa Vodka

Napa, California
This is very special stuff – a true vintage vodka, made each year from Sauvignon Blanc grapes harvested from a single vineyard. It has a wonderfully silky mouthfeel with lovely floral notes and an ever-so-slight grape flavor. Each bottle is hand numbered. Not inexpensive, but the hand-crafted quality is thoroughly evident.

Ninkasi Brewery Beers
Eugene, Oregon
Of course, there are a million great micro-breweries in the Northwest, so choosing one was a real challenge! Ninkasi, though, has been noticed by sources including Sunset and Men’s Journal magazines and Wired.com. These beers have big, bold flavors and lots of brightness – ideal for enjoying with big, bold foods.

Novy and Siduri Wines
Santa Rosa, California
These are sister wineries – Siduri makes only Pinot Noir, while Novy makes mostly Syrah, Grenache, Chardonnay, and Viognier. Each is a bargain for the money – these are really beautiful, well-crafted wines made by a small producer, and they’ve garnered accolades galore.

Volcano Vineyards Crater View Ranch Viognier
Bend, Oregon
Volcano Vineyards is a micro-winery that specializes in Rhone varietals. Their Viognier is superb, with flavors of pear and vanilla along with the traditional floral aromas and, nicely, few of the sometimes steely/mineral notes. (Scott Radcliff, the winemaker, is a family friend, so I may be slightly influenced, but only slightly.)

CONDIMENTS
Deluxe Foods Jams
Seattle, Washington
These jams are made in a classic French style, using peak-of-season and sustainable, locally-grown fruits. Their spiced plum jam particularly knocked me out, with its full-on plum flavor and complex mix of spices.

The Olive Press Olive Oils
Sonoma, California
I tasted about twelve different lines of olive oils and this was hands-down my favorite. Their oils have an intensity of flavor – not that they’re intense, although some are – but that the individual olive flavors (arbequena, ascolano, etc.) really come through. I’m also a big fan of citrus olive oils, and theirs are the absolute best, with lots of true citrus flavor and little of the bitterness that sometimes accompanies.

Pacifica Hawaii Salts
Kaunakakai, Hawaii
Their most basic salt, called White Coral, is beautifully sparkling crystals with a clean taste. Other “traditional” salts include Red Alaea and Black Lava, which has a pleasant mineral-y flavor. They also have a line of “blush” salts that are infused with wine, balsamic vinegar, and other flavors. All are absolutely pristine, made in Molokai, and dried by the Hawaiian sun.

Terra Sonoma Saba
Sonoma, California
Saba is basically cooked down wine must, so it’s a syrup with a flavor that’s a little like balsamic vinegar without the acidity – it’s like grown-up dessert sauce. I had it the other night over ice cream – it’d also be good made into a soda, stirred into a cocktail, over pancakes, over fruit, or stirred into salad dressings and marinades. Really unique, and really delicious.

*Cooking Light Winner*
Volcano Island Honey

Honokaa, Hawaii
First of all, it’s gorgeous – naturally pearlescent white, thick, and spreadable. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s also organic, unheated, and unfiltered, harvested from a single grove of kiawe trees on the Big Island. The original Organic White Honey has lovely floral notes, and they also have some flavored honeys that are wonderful.

SWEETS
Amy E’s Bakery Toffee
Moscow, Idaho
I like toffee, and I tasted a lot of it on behalf of this project. Of all of them, Amy’s was my favorite. It’s buttery, crisp, and it shatters in your mouth. Nice.

Erin Baker’s Breakfast Cookies
Bellingham, Washington
I vacillated a lot over this one, trying to decide if this healthy, wholesome, whole grain cookie has a place in a list of fancy specialty foods, at the expense of, for example, an amazing chocolatier. But ultimately, I think that, along with chocolates and caramels and toffees, sometimes in life you just want a satisfyingly healthy cookie. This is it.

Happy Goat Caramels
San Francisco, California
Caramels are so hot these days that there are a million to choose from. But these have that slight goaty flavor that makes them uniquely delicious – like dulce de leche in a candy wrapper. There are several flavors – I particularly like the vanilla bean caramels and the winter spice caramels. I also like their Scotch caramel sauce, which is wonderfully boozy.

Poco Dolce Chocolates
San Francisco, California
There are tons of chocolate products from this company – I tasted their bittersweet bars (many flavors to choose from), bittersweet tiles (also many flavors), and toffee squares. All were great. I particularly liked the olive oil bar with its soft, sexy texture, and could hardly stop eating the toffee tiles.

*Cooking Light Winner*
Rustic Bakery

Larkspur, California
Every single thing Rustic makes is exquisite – small, delicate cheese coins; thin, crisp, sweet/savory crostini; sandy shortbread cookies; vanilla pecan granola; and more. One of my favorites is the pan forte crostini – thin, crisped slices of what seem like nut breads, jam-packed with dried fruit and seeds, ideal for serving with cheese. Cooking Light featured their cacao nib shortbread, which is to die for.

WILD CARD
Oren’s Kitchen Artisan Nuts
El Cerrito, California
|There are four flavors – Wild Rosemary Almonds, Indian Ajwain Cashews, Smoked Paprika Pecans, and Coconut Chili Macadamias. Each is perfectly toasted for an ideal crunch, and perfectly spiced for complex yet subtle flavors.

Sugajules Artisan Granola
San Francisco, California
I make my own granola, and never, ever think that prepared granolas taste as good as mine. Until I tasted Sugajules. This is sweet, crunchy, flavorful granola, handmade in small batches, and jam-packed with goodies like dried fruit, toasted nuts, and teeny tiny little chocolate chips.

Tillen Farms Pickles
Sunnyside, Washington
Of all the pickled vegetables I’ve tasted – the category is very hot these days – these are my favorite. Mostly, they’re just pure, clean, and simple – not a lot of unusual or creative flavorings and easy on the vinegar. Their asparagus spears would make a great bloody Mary stirrers.

Unbound Pickling Beatnik Pickled Beets
Portland, Oregon
Unbound is on the opposite end of the spectrum from Tillen Farms. Here, there are creative flavorings galore. I particularly like their Beatnik Beets, with pomegranate and chai spices. Subtly different and great in a salad.

Vignette Wine Country Sodas
Berkeley, California
These are sodas flavored with varietal wine grape juice, and available in Pinot Noir, Rosé, and Chardonnay flavors. They’re light and refreshing, and not overly sweet – kind of like a spritzer, but lighter and non-alcoholic – making them a great, grown-up, any time beverage.


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