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Aroma Therapy

7/8/2007-Pacific Northwest Magazine

By Matthew Amster-Burton

Over an alluring brew of mint tea and dry ice, a seductive soup is irresistible

A recent issue of Bon Appétit reported this shocking result from a reader survey:

"Q: What's your (deep, dark) party secret?

"A: Sometimes I like to show off."

Now, I know you aren't one of these show-offs, but just in case you are, I have an idea for you.

Last fall I was at a dinner party where the cook served a very autumnal parsnip soup with apple butter and parsnip chips. I was impressed with the contents of the bowl, but what was under the bowl made me laugh: It was a saucer of strong cinnamon tea and dry-ice chips. As the dry ice fizzed and bubbled, it wafted a woodsy aroma and no small amount of playful steam.

Neither the tea nor the dry ice was there to be consumed, although I couldn't resist spooning a piece of dry ice into my water glass and grinning stupidly. The presentation had the air of avant-garde cuisine, but unlike, say, the chef in Chicago who prints sushi rolls on his inkjet, this cook had created something worth trying at home.

More to the point, if I had to sum up the molecular gastronomy movement in one word, it would be "expensive," but dry ice is cheap and easy to work with — so long as you remember the stuff will burn you if you don't wear gloves.

The party cooks turned out to be Becky Selengut, a local private chef and Seattle Central Community College culinary instructor, and Dana Cree, former pastry chef at Eva restaurant who now works at the Rainier Club. The soup recipe and dry ice undercurrent idea were Selengut's; Cree suggested the tea flavoring. "When I worked at the Herbfarm, we used dry ice in a witch's brew decoration for Halloween," said Selengut. "Seeing the boiling, bubbling cauldron left an impression."

Selengut is an expert on seasonal Northwest produce. Her Web site, www.seasonalcornucopia.com, lets you look up what's in season at any given time. For example, I tried it in February and it told me to look for broccoli, burdock, chard, kale, leeks, potatoes and turnips. Upon seeing this list, I asked Selengut if she could create a spring-summer version of the soup.

"Any opinion on whether the soup is vegetarian or not?" she asked. "I'm thinking pancetta, peas, mint and aged goat cheese."

While salivating, I assured her that I've never said no to pancetta in anything, though converting the soup to a vegetarian version would be easy.

Selengut and Cree came to my house one day, and the whole soup came together in a matter of minutes. While the chefs cooked, they bantered. "I don't think this needs any cream," said Selengut, tasting the soup and shooting a glance at Cree.

"What?" Cree shot back. "I don't add cream to everything!"

Honestly, this soup is so good that it would probably impress your guests even without the fog-machine effect. But when the soup was served in its bubbling saucers, I was blown away all over again.

Matthew Amster-Burton is a Seattle freelance writer. He can be reached at matthew.reviews@gmail.com.

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