Tender is the earth: Tamara Murphy and Terra Plata

Former Brasa frontwoman Tamara Murphy breaks new ground with her cookbook and new restaurant.

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Former Brasa frontwoman Tamara Murphy breaks new ground with her cookbook and new restaurant.

"Sometimes we forget how good simple things can be," Tamara Murphy writes in her wondrous book, Tender, which also serves as the manifesto for her new restaurant on Capitol Hill, Terra Plata. The book gives away a "secret" (actually a well-known truth): that only a few ingredients are necessary to cook and eat well, that what grows together goes together, and that "pure deliciousness" comes from real food.

With that mantra, Murphy encapsulates a philosophy and a way of life: paying attention, making good choices, handling the earth's bounty gently, one meal at a time. "Perfect foods — fruits and vegetables — come out of the ground and not out of a box or can," she writes. Earth-to-plate, in other words, with careful and caring intervention in the kitchen.

"Tender" has been out for a year. Publication was scheduled to coincide with the opening of Terra Plata, but things rarely go according to schedule in a new restaurant space. So the book was published while the restaurant languished. Murphy had closed Brasa, in Belltown, a couple of years earlier and was keeping busy with a café in the basement of the original Elliott Bay Bookstore in Pioneer Square (since closed).

As she worked on her new restaurant project, and fended off cookbook proposals from the likes of TenSpeed Press, Murphy began talking with a trio of women who had started a non-traditional publishing company called ShinShinChez, a company that promised "a collaborative approach to publishing, marketing and community development."

Murphy's restaurants have always supported local farmers, fishers, and ranchers. At Brasa, six years ago, she adopted a litter of piglets being raised at Whistling Train farm in Auburn, chronicling their growth on a blog (Life of a Pig), following them to the slaugherhouse and preparing the meat. Two seasons later she founded an annual weekend called Burning Beast that's a cross between "Boy Meets Grill" (macho chefs and hardy foodies) and Burning Man (temporary community, ritual cataclysm).

One of the ShinShinChez founders, designer Nancy Gellos, had been impressed by Murphy's blog and suggested something beyond the usual recipe book and the advance-plus-royalties formula. The four (including communications consultant Jody Ericson Dorow and marketing expert Marlen Boivin) met in 2006 and hit it off at once.

They talked for literally years about what Tender would be like: no top-down rules, some things written down ahead of time, others recorded and transcribed. In terms of its production values, it would be like Murphy's cooking: the highest quality ingredients, but neither slick nor commercial, with a focus on teaching a philosophy of food, not a cuisine or style. For example, from a Sicilian cook Murphy learns that the best flavors in fresh herbs are contained in the stem. Her gnocchi are made with ricotta, not potatoes. She waxes poetic about communal foods like paella.

The book's photographs, by Angie Norwood Browne, match Murphy's prose: understated yet perfectly focused scenes that go beyond the studio stovetop to farmers' markets and farms. There are pictures of Murphy and her crew in the kitchen, of course, but just as many of Murphy among the sheep and cows. "It's about being connected," Murphy says.

As publishers, ShinShinChez provided editorial guidance as well as production expertise. The four women are all passionate supporters of local farmers markets and write a collaborative website called FarmersCooksEaters. To market Tender the team decided to emphasize sales at markets, bulk sales as a tool for school fundraisers, personal appearances, and, of course, at Murphy's open-at-last restaurant.

Which brings us to Terra Plata, a triangular space at the southern apex of the Melrose Market building on Capitol Hill. The kitchen is at the triangle's base, the bar is at the center, and the tables are along the windows overlooking Minor and Melrose Avenues. There's a new Taylor Shellfish retail outlet and restaurant next door, and the Melrose Market complex of shops and restaurants (most notably, Sitka & Spruce) as the building opens out toward Pine Street.

Terra Plata's menu is straightforward, without embellishing prose. A dozen or so snacks and small plates (an unctuous country-style pork pâté, a longitudinally-split beef bone filled with marrow); half a dozen each items labeled "earth," "sea," and "land." Marinated beets, a winter staple in Seattle restaurants, were dressed with citrus rather than olive oil, providing a bright snap. Guanciale and winter squash enhanced the lamb, a pomegranate reduction and hazelnut butter enhanced the duck breast.

Murphy's signature dish, which she serves for $20 at Terra Plata, is "roast pig." She starts with a pork shoulder, braises it in wine and stock, adds browned chorizo sausage and clams steamed in the braising liquid, then tops the meat with pickled onions and crisp pork skin. It's a rich, satisfying dinner, with unexpected notes of smoked paprika and garlic from the chorizo and the briny ocean taste of clams.

This is not minimalist, modernist, or chef-driven food. Rather, it is selfless, without ego, almost self-effacing in its refusal to show off fancy techniques or bizarre ingredients.

Murphy's resumé includes both a James Beard award and an Iron Chef appearance, but she's too self-aware and introspective for the life of a media hog. "Our planet needs some crucial nurturing," Murphy writes. We were put on the planet knowing how to take care of ourselves, Murphy believes. "But there's been a big disconnect."

Gellos joins the conversation: "Tender" is part of the road back, she adds. "Support the people who take care of the planet," Murphy says, and she's not just talking about professional chefs. "When you do, you feel better. And you'll be a better cook."

Tender, by Tamara Murphy, ShinShinChez, 264 pages, $40

Terra Plata, 1501 Melrose Ave., Seattle, 206-325-1501


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden is a regular Crosscut contributor. His new book, published this month, is titled “HOME GROWN Seattle: 101 True Tales of Local Food & Drink." (Belltown Media. $17.95).