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One last recipe before we say goodbye

Today, with a heavy and grateful heart, I’m announcing my decision to step away from my column. And so on one of the few times in the 30-plus years I have been writing Fresh Approach for the Mail Tribune, there are no reference materials at my side. No books. No interview transcripts. Not even a stray press release from the National Egg Board.

Today I write from the heart, and I offer one last collection of thoughts.

There have been many happy and memorable moments associated with writing this column, such as:

  • A 40-minute one-on-one interview with Julia Child
  • The opportunity of poking around in my readers’ lives under the guise of a culinary quest.
  • Treks out to local fields for a first-hand look at the leeks, tomatoes, hazelnuts, designer peppers and first strawberries of the season.

Then there are the professional opportunities nationally and abroad that have cropped up over the years: Eleven days in Hong Kong, compliments of the Hong Kong Tourist Association, to cover an annual food and wine festival; a month spent on a luxury cruise ship crossing the Pacific to various Asian ports of call so I could perform the duties of guest chef on board — basically three cooking classes and a lot of schmoozing with my fellow passengers.

I’ve covered the peanut harvest in West Texas, been a spokesperson for an onion, a judge at the National Beef Cook-off, and made numerous regional and national television appearances.

I’ve written five cookbooks and conducted dozens of promotional book tour radio interviews over the phone in my jammies.

I expect there’s another one or two cookbooks in me. And I certainly will get back to my website and evaluate the blogging concept. Stay tuned. But as I wind down Fresh Approach, I will leave you with one final short story.

It began over the phone as one of those dreaded cold calls that usually has me instinctively setting up orange cone barriers around my free time. But this was something different. I could hear it in the caller’s voice. It was Jan Zajicek, a friend in Corvallis. She had gotten involved in quite a unique and challenging project. The “elevator pitch” was intriguing. And when she got to the part about The American Institute of Wine & Food and the James Beard Foundation, I, too, was hooked.

The Dinner Party Project, explained Zajicek, “has been designed to enhance children’s appreciation for the family meal. Over a 5- to 6-week curriculum, the children explore foods and flavors from different ethnic groups while learning how to host guests for dinner.”

With adult guidance, they do it all, from handmade invitations to developing a menu, setting the table, and using proper etiquette. Best of all, these classroom and home activities would culminate in a dinner party prepared and shared by the children with their parents.

All for a larger goal, stressed Zajicek. By the time dessert is served and lingering guests are saying their final farewells, it’s hoped that the kids will have acquired a hands-on appreciation of the central role food plays in our lives.

I agreed to spend 2 hours with the kids going over basic cooking skills and generally supporting their enthusiasm. Well, I quickly discovered that enthusiasm was not in short supply with this group of third- and fourth-graders.

Me: “Who’d like to cut up these bell peppers?”

All 31 youngsters, hands aloft: Me! Me! Me! Me! Me!

I was hooked. Which made the second part of my commitment a cakewalk: hanging out the day and evening of the event to guide and support, which translated into simply observing a group of kids in the throes of organized chaos. As the evening came to a close, those exhausted but exhilarated young chefs concluded that cooking and entertaining was indeed fun.

The experience stayed with me. Somehow, all adult cooks tasked with the day-ins and day-outs of chopping peppers (and onions, and carrots), grilling chicken (and fish, and tofu), and roasting beef (and mushrooms, and chicken) for a lifetime of meals need to channel that same enthusiasm. To cook joyfully is a gift to yourself, no less than to others. My hope is that at some level, along the way, Fresh Approach has helped in that regard. Thanks for being such a great audience. I wish you well. Bon Appetit.

For my farewell recipe, I decided to play off our season of transitions. Autumn leaves are turning and offering us their brilliant play of color, I envision most of you hitting the road to take it all in. There are still open wineries, after all. The weather should be cooperating. And lovely roadside parks where a picnic can take place.

Potato Cheese and Beer Soup

Yields about 8 servings.

I guess you could say this is the most traditional soup in the Roberts-Dominguez household. When relatives hit town, this is the soup we make and pack for wine-country picnics, day hikes in the Cascades and cross-country skiing. It’s delectable, hearty-rich and cheesy. I’ve shared it with readers so often over the years that perhaps it’s well known to you. But it bears repeating. One last time.

1 quart chicken broth (homemade or canned)

2-1/2 pounds Yukon gold potatoes, peeled or unpeeled, coarsely chopped

1/2 cup craft beer (preferably an amber or nut brown style, dry white wine or dry sherry, or extra chicken broth)

2 cups chopped green onions, whites and about half the green stalks

1 quart light cream (or milk)

1/4 cup soy sauce

1 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper

6 ounces shredded Swiss cheese

6 ounces shredded cheddar cheese

In a heavy-bottomed pot bring the chicken broth to a boil. Add the potatoes and craft beer (or other suggested options) and simmer for 30 minutes, or until the potatoes are very soft. Add the green onions, remove the pot from the heat and let it stand to soften the onion a bit.

Add the light cream or milk to the pot.

Puree the potato-broth mixture in a blender or food processor (you will have to do this in batches; when blending, fill the container only half full and cover the lid with a dish towel because the soup may “spurt” as it’s being blended). Return the puree to the pot. (Alternatively, use a hand-held immersion blender if you have one). Stir in the soy sauce and pepper and slowly bring the soup back to a simmer.

NOTE: The soup can be prepared to this point up to 48 hours ahead and refrigerated, or prepared and frozen for 3 months.

When ready to serve or pack into a thermos, proceed with the recipe by placing the pot back on the burner, over medium heat. When the soup begins to simmer, stir in the grated cheeses gradually, a handful at a time.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Email her at janrd@proaxis.com, write to her at P.O. Box 634, Corvallis, OR 97339, or obtain additional recipes and food tips at www.janrd.com.