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When you ask people about food and the Northwest, they almost always think first of salmon, then possibly oysters, clams, chanterelles, or specialty cheeses. Some might be aware of the many apple, cherry, and berry orchards, the amazing local specialty potatoes and onions, the wineries and micro breweries, or the popularity of wild huckleberries, blackberries and mushrooms. But there's far more to Northwest Specialties than that— we'll be talking about all of those, but also, many others, including locally grown hazelnuts and walnuts, and grape seed oil, artisan bakers, millers, wineries and breweries— including mead and cider brewers, and locally grown beef and organic poultry, vegetables, fruit and greens.

No matter what you're making, the results can only be as good as your ingredients. We're incredibly lucky in the Pacific Northwest, in that fresh, local, in-season ingredients of excellent quality are readily available, year-round. Whether you shop at the Pike Place Market, your local food co-op, or one of the big chain grocery stores, you'll find terrific and fresh choices in the produce and meat departments. You don't need to be a gourmet chef to know how to pick out good fresh fish, meat, or veggies. All it takes is a little interest, and close attention.

One of the benefits of abundant local farmers, ranchers, bakers, orchards, wineries, and craftspeople is that it is increasingly easy to skip the middle-man, and buy direct at farmers' markets. Increasingly, restaurants are buying their own produce locally as well, to the extent that many restaurants are enthusiastically participating in the slow food movement. The slow food movement is all about using fresh, local in-season ingredients. Slow food works especially well in a climate like ours: Winter in the Northwest is a terrific time for fish, shellfish, nuts, apples, cranberries, squashes, soups, stews, and chowders. You'll find a good variety of organic greens still available, as well, and there are a number of locally-made cheeses that bring zest and flavor to your winter cooking.

For example, you can brighten nearly any meal with a simple salad of mixed greens, tossed with dried cranberries or thinly-sliced pears, topped with a zesty goat cheese and freshly-toasted, chopped hazelnuts, dressed with a local sweet vinaigrette. (We'll talk about making your own seasoned vinegars and olive-oils, as well.)

Whether you're entertaining friends and family this holiday season, or simply want to prepare something festive for yourself, you've got an amazing variety of wonderful and affordable ingredients to choose from, and you'll find yourself quickly developing an aversion to the kinds of over-processed, chemically-altered, frozen, pre-packaged stuff that many of us cook, serve, and consume; there's a better way to eat, and a better way to live.

So pour a glass of Columbia Valley wine (possibly a Washington Shiraz, or an Oregon Riesling), settle back in your favorite chair, and this week let's talk about holiday cooking in the Northwest.