Culinary Inspiration

Cookbooks feature the best of the Northwest

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

For several years, my former girlfriend and I used to make the most of every long Thanksgiving holiday weekend to escape to Vancouver Island for relaxation and rejuvenation via beach-strolling, storm-watching and hot-springing. Destination: Tofino!

Tofino hunkers down at the end of a narrow peninsula that reaches north from the rugged west coast of Vancouver into Clayoquot Sound, a stunning wilderness of islands, ancient forests and abundant wildlife designated a Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations. The peninsula is blessed with long, sandy stretches of beach and, just offshore, 35 kilometers of gorgeous breaks, bestowing Tofino with the unusual title of “surfing capital of Canada.”

The tiny town itself is a laid-back blend of surfers, eco-tourists, First Nations peoples, wildlife biologists, artists, rich condo-dwellers and beach-camping vagabonds. This curious combination supports an abundance of galleries, sightseeing tours, spas, surf schools, yoga studios and an amazing array of places to eat, including renowned destination restaurants like Shelter, the Spotted Bear, and the Pointe at the Wickaninnish Inn.

These high-end eateries attract cosmopolitan connoisseurs from across Canada, but we discovered something even better than these chic restaurants: SoBo, a purple food truck parked in a gravel lot outside of town. Stumbling across it on a drizzly day, the warm, wafting smells of hot food together with the long line of customers convinced us to check it out.

It was a meal that neither of us will ever forget—grilled fish tacos served with fresh fruit salsa, salmon tofu pockets, polenta fries with Caesar dipping sauce and the most killer salmon chowder I have ever tasted. The food served out of this unassuming purple truck felt like a revelation; a brave, new cuisine that fused Pacific Rim flavors, surfer sensibilities (hot, nourishing, cheap), Left Coast creativity and the then-emerging trend toward locally sourced, seasonally inspired healthful vitality into an uncomplicated deliciousness.

The next time we visited Tofino, SoBo, or “Sophisticated Bohemian,” had grown beyond the parking lot to a new home at the Botanical Gardens. The following visit, SoBo had graduated to a permanent, spacious location downtown. While we missed the rugged charms of eating outside, the quality, tastiness and affordability of their gastronomical offerings remained consistent.

All these years later, SoBo now has its own cookbook, sharing for the first time the secrets of their rich salmon chowder, alongside inspired delights like Wild Nettle & Sorrel Soup, Hippie Chicken, Seaweed Salad, Surfer Noodle Soup, Smoked Oyster Spudwich, Braised Salt Spring Island Lamb Shanks, Left Coast Seafood Stew, and their divine take on the SoBo margarita.

I haven’t been back to Tofino since parting ways with that woman years ago, but my mind (and tastebuds) have often wandered back to SoBo. The Sobo Cookbook brings Chefs Artie and Lisa Ahier’s recipes out of the salty mists of the Clayoquot realm to the rest of the world, and it is a great and generous gift.

Other Pacific Northwest cookbooks of note include Graham Kerr’s Flash of Silver, an ongoing e-book series by the English chef made famous by his Galloping Gourmet TV series in the 1970s. This periodical is a memoir comparing his life’s triumphs and travails to that of a Pacific Chinook salmon. The Emmy-nominated food personality has sold 14 million cookbooks, hosted cooking shows on Discovery, NBC, and PBS and has been witness to evolving American attitudes toward cooking and eating.

Nowadays, Kerr—who has lived in Skagit County for many years—travels the country to share the healthy living practices he’s adopted and discuss how even simple choices can have a positive impact for the good of society and the planet. Discuss these issues at a dinner with Kerr and stay the night May 16-17 at the North Cascades Institute’s Environmental Learning Center. Fees are $150 and include a casual gourmet dinner, overnight accommodations, breakfast and a naturalist-led outdoor activity (go to http://www.ncasades.org for the specifics).

Finally, Greg Atkinson’s newly reissued In Season: Culinary Adventures of a Pacific Northwest Chef is more than just a cookbook, as it offers personal stories, food philosophy and kitchen advice alongside recipes. Atkinson is a popular chef, writer, restaurateur and early proponent of cooking and eating locally. In Season recounts many of the early “culinary adventures” in Bellingham and Friday Harbor that led him to adopt a cooking philosophy based on simplicity, seasonality and tastiness. Atkinson preaches the good gospel of preparing healthful meals high in flavor but low in fussiness, always best shared in community with others. Mussels, halibut, salmon, oysters and Dungeness crab make frequent appearances in these pages, alongside other local delights.

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