Renee Erickson pours herself into her four Seattle restaurants like she pours rosé at a dinner party: generously and endlessly, to bring people together, to help them feel relaxed and well-taken-care-of, and to facilitate a good time and good conversation. With her first cookbook,A Boat, a Whale, & a Walrus: Menus and Stories (named after three of those restaurants: Boat Street Cafe, The Whale Wins, and The Walrus and the Carpenter), she intends to help readers do the same.
The book is Erickson's journal and thank you note to the people who stand behind her, all rolled into one. You learn about her restaurants, her staff, her purveyors, and her family (biological and chosen). And you learn what she wants to eat when she's not at the restaurants, when she's celebrating with friends. The book is organized into menus for seasonally themed gatherings, like 'Wintry Brunch,' 'Wild Foods Dinner (Spring),' 'My Birthday (Summer),' and 'Early Fall Put-Up Party.' Erickson describes how and why each menu fits into her experience of the season, and they are often guided by nostalgia or personal tradition. All this gives this book a dreamy, literary quality that buoys the recipes.
It seems these recipes are well-curated to reflect quite precisely Erickson's style and philosophy of cooking. She was not a formally trained cook when she started at Boat St Cafe in the early 1990's (having gotten a BFA in painting and printmaking), and when she took over its operation from her mentor Susan Kaplan in 1998, she did so with not much more than the desire to give people excellent and memorable dining experiences everyday. (Perhaps it's partially because she credits female cookbook authors like Elizabeth David and Julia Child for much of her education that she seems so unusually attuned to what makes for a readable, workable cookbook.) She has since become a big fish in her own right in Seattle's dining scene (she was a 2014 James Beard Award finalist), and her restaurants are known for their relaxed, elegant food and hospitality.
The food in the book is at turns refined and humble, but is always accessible. The ingredient lists are rarely very long, and techniques are uncomplicated and thoroughly explained. There is much that is 'French-inflected,' as she describes her restaurants, and there's more that speaks to her Pacific-Northwest provenance—loads of seafood and regional produce like foraged spring mushrooms and wild strawberries. A Boat, a Whale & a Walrus was co-written with award-winning blogger and cookbook author Jess Thomson and was photographed by Erickson's friend, Jim Henkens, both of whom seem to gel with Erickson's sensibilities.
The recipes I tested this week were admirably spot-on, and I will make all of them again. We'll start with her perfect Chilled Melon Soup with mint, cayenne, and lime, which my toddler and I both whine about wanting everyday. Then we'll make her Grilled King Salmon with walnut tarator and cherry tomato salad, rich and perky at the same time (and with the melon soup, a sublime meal for the last gasp of summer). Then we'll take a sharp left and go for over-the-top, cold weather comfort with a creamy (like, 3-cups-of-heavy-cream creamy) Lacinato Kale Gratin. And we'll end the week with simple, wonderful Mussels in Cider with dijon, crème fraîche, and tarragon.
Thanks to the folks at Sasquatch Books, we have 5 copies of A Boat, a Whale & a Walrus to give away this week. For your chance, just tell us your favorite party menu in the comments below.