Most of Portland’s most popular restaurants are centrally located within a couple mile’s radius of downtown. It makes sense; that’s where you’ll find the densest concentration of both locals and visitors, plus the stores and venues that lure them there. Opening anything more ambitious than a pizza joint or a teriyaki shop in the sleepy nether regions of the city is just plain risky.
But Adam and Jackie Sappington took the leap anyway, opening The Country Cat way out east in the Montavilla neighborhood eight years ago. The chefs were already making names for themselves at one of the city’s best restaurants (the now-shuttered Wildwood). But they were itching for a place of their own, where they could merge their love of Southern cuisine with the flavors of the Northwest.
Well, if you build it, they will come — especially if you build something with as much heart, soul, talent and gracious hospitality as the Sappingtons did. The Country Cat was an instant success, and still is. It’s one of those rare institutions that is consistently excellent and never disappoints. In fact, even their spin-off location at the Portland Airport is just as consistently top-notch, and that is quite a feat.
I used to think of The Country Cat as a locals-only gem. Let the tourists line up for the marquee restaurants downtown; The Country Cat is ours. But you can’t keep a tight lid on a place like this. Its following goes well beyond city, county or even state borders. And now the Sappingtons have a cookbook poised to bring their cooking to an even wider audience.
It was kind of a big deal to me when their book, “Heartlandia,” came out this fall, and not just because The Country Cat is one of my favorite restaurants. Adam and Jackie are truly wonderful people you can’t help but root for (to watch their episode on Chopped is to get a life lesson on how to sustain a successful marriage). Honest, hard-working and generous, they make no secret about how much they love their kids, their jobs, and their community. They are equally admired by restaurant insiders and outsiders for a reason.
But the book is also a product of other local talents I know well. Agent Betsy Amster is a friend of mine, and I had the good fortune of working with co-writer Ashley Gartland and photographer John Valls during my years at MIX. I know first-hand how much work it takes to produce a cookbook, and I couldn’t be prouder of the people who put this one together.
Plus, I tested some of the recipes, so I couldn’t wait to see how it all turned out. The book is filled with many of the restaurant’s most popular dishes, as well as a few family favorites they cook at home. It’s all in there, from Adam’s famous fried chicken, which takes three days to make (it’s worth it), to Jackie’s crave-inducing biscuits.
But the recipe I couldn’t wait to get my hands on was for the “potted Judy,” which is kind of like pimento cheese. Aside from making a bang-up grilled cheese sandwich, it’s the best dip for crudites and crackers. With all the holiday parties coming up, you can bet I’ll have I’ll have a big jar of Judy at the ready. Or two.
From “Heartlandia: Heritage Recipes From Portland’s The Country Cat” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) by Adam and Jackie Sappington with Ashley Gartland.
Makes about 3 cups
Though this family recipe is similar to a pimento or potted cheese, the Sappington family version is called Judy. Family legend has it that my grandpa Sappy coined the name, though no one really knows who the true Judy was. I serve Judy as a bar snack with crackers and on top of our burger at The Cat, but actually think its best use is as a picnic food. When preparing Judy at home, make sure you had grate the cheese and use Budweiser beer. Finally, know that Judy is best made several days in advance; her flavor only improves as she festers.
1 pound sharp cheddar cheese, coarsely grated
1/4 large yellow onion, coarsely grated
1/2 cup Budweiser beer
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup olive juice (from a can of olives)
4 dashes Tabasco sauce
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Crackers, for serving
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the cheese, onion, beer, mayonnaise, olive juice, Tabasco, and salt and pepper to taste. Mix on medium-low speed until soft and slightly creamy, about 5 minutes.
Transfer the Judy to an airtight container and refrigerate for at least 24 hours or up to 1 week. Bring the Judy to room temperature before transferring to a serving bowl and digging in with crackers.