Linda Miller Nicholson does things with food you wouldn’t think of trying, using creative combinations and exotic ingredients you’d expect to find on top New York restaurant menus. She’ll fill a kabocha squash with braised pork and bubbly queso, and serve it with made-from-scratch naan. She’ll drizzle caramelized grape and bone marrow demi glacé over hibiscus-pepper lamb shanks. She’ll sprinkle pizza with edible flower petals and dot a plate of small bites with waterbugs (apparently they taste like Starburst candy).
Food is more than fuel for Nicholson — it’s art. Plates are her canvases and the kitchen is her studio.
“I don’t consider myself experimental so much as seasonal, and ingredient-driven,” she said. “I always want to use what is fresh, healthy, gorgeous, and maybe a little bit novel because I get bored cooking the same old thing. I love to share my passion for daring cooking as well, because it helps people to see that life can be delicious outside their comfort zone.”
Followed by thousands on Instagram, Nicholson is best known locally as the food blogger of Salty Seattle, which she’s currently taking a break from. She also teaches pizza and pasta cooking classes, some to kids through the Issaquah School District. And she produced the cookbook Nudie Foodies featuring food bloggers (yes, in the nude) and recipes. That project was to raise money for tsunami victims in Japan in 2011.
“I started teaching people to cook because I get so much joy from seeing that look of accomplishment in someone’s eye when they master something as satisfying as preparing a new-to-them dish,” she said. “It’s especially rewarding in my children’s cooking classes, because something as simple as dicing a tomato is a great coup for many kids.”
As a master of innovative cuisine she needs a lot of equipment to keep up with her creative brain. Her kitchen, which sits in a copper-tiled home nestled in the woods in Preston, is full of contraptions that help make her wildest (and weirdest) culinary dreams come true.
For years Nicholson and her husband, Jonas, have been building the perfect kitchen. For the opening celebration — Thanksgiving 2013 — they got three turkeys: one for the rotisserie oven, one for the convection steam oven, and one for the wood-fire outdoor oven. Nicholson remembers the wood-fire baked turkey as the winning dish. Maybe because it was ready in about 20 minutes (it can get up to 1,100 degrees). Her husband thinks it was one of the other two. No doubt, all three were worthy of blue ribbons.
But Nicholson has more ovens than that. She has a Tandoor oven that bakes naan on its sides, and skewers of lamb in its center. She also has a spectacular wood-fire grill for summer steaks and veggies, and an induction stovetop that brings water to a boil in less than a minute. She has the capacity to cook just about anything.
After living in Italy for several years, Nicholson considers pasta and pizza her bread and butter. She has about half a dozen die cuts to create handcrafted tubes, and shells of pasta. Her pizza dough is a light and fluffy cloud of perfection. Her sauce is made from a combination of tomatoes that grow along the sides of her home.
Nicholson started experimenting with food as a young girl. When she was 5, her parents decided to move from densely populated Southern California to the middle of Idaho, where her dad envisioned a bucolic utopia. They had ducks, chickens, geese, and horses.
“We got this one cow, and he was a calf and his name was Slobber,” said Nicholson. “He was mine and he was like my best friend, and I bottle fed him all summer long.”
At the end of summer Nicholson took a trip back to California for a few weeks. When she came home, hamburgers were on the menu for dinner. Her dad explained the burgers came from Slobber, which catapulted Nicholson into vegetarianism.
“It was so startling and so shocking and so … how could you do that?” she said. “And so I was vegetarian until my early 20s, and neither of my parents were. I sort of had to learn to cook because they were fine with the choices I made, but they weren’t going to go out of their way to do anything extra to accommodate it. So I taught myself how to cook, and taught myself what I could eat.”
She grew up making pasta with her grandfather, who taught her how to roll out big thick German noodles.
In adulthood, when she decided to start eating meat again, she said it was like a rebirth into the foodie world. She thought about Slobber, and what that entire experience ultimately taught her. She said that made her conscious about where food comes from, at a personal level. She has respect for animals, and food. It is a lesson she hopes to instill in her 7-year-old son, Bentley Danger.
“Part of the reason for us moving out here was so we could give our son a little bit of a taste of that,” she said. “(To give him the) experience of going from the beginning to the end with an animal. Which we haven’t done yet.”
So far the family has raised two dogs, ducks, chickens, and goats that mingle behind a fence. On the rural property baby deer prance along the driveway and the neighborhood bear is always on watch to raid the garbage can. (She has to put it out minutes before the garbage truck is due.) Behind the house is a little pond, and a lake that a beaver busily dammed until it broke last winter, sending water cascading over the little road that leads to their house.
When the Nicholsons bought the home in 2011, it was far from finished. The former owners started building it in 2004, when the price of copper was low. But when copper about tripled in price, they blew nearly their entire budget on the exterior. When the Nicholsons went to see it for the first time, it was a golden-brown shell of a home sitting in an overgrown escape.
“It was a jungle outside,” said Nicholson. “You couldn’t find the front door. There was a river around the whole house because they didn’t do any drainage and we’re in a wetland basically. My son was like, “No, Daddy, no,’” she said laughing.
But the house was original, modern, and on acreage. They bought it, knowing it would be a ton of work to make their own. What’s now the most important structural steel beam in the house was a dilapidated, dead tree when they first walked in.
Nicholson quit her job, and slowed down on food blogging to focus on the home renovations. Through the process she worked with about 40 subcontractors. She still has a list of more things she wants to do, like grow a garden on the rooftop and raise honeybees. Still, life is sweet in the kitchen and the outdoor patio where all the food is made.
“From scratch is important to me, both because I like the challenge, and I believe the old adage, ‘You are what you eat.’ Increasingly, it seems we as Americans are eating food-like things, that are not actually food at their roots,” she said. “Real food should have pronounceable ingredients, and the best way to ensure that is to make it with your own two hands.”
Recently friends gathered outside with glasses of red wine as Nicholson pulled warm pizzas out of the glowing wood-fire oven. Like a true artist, she’d stop to analyze her work — the color, texture, and taste.
“Food connects and unites everyone,” she said. “Politics, religion, nationality, everything aside, food cuts through it all and brings people together. I mean, who doesn’t speak the language of pizza?”
Nicholson’s Pizza Combos
- Cauliflower, chanterelle mushrooms, chorizo, & fig
- Peas, speck, burrata cheese, peaches, & mint chiffonade
- Pepperoni, nicoise olives, Mama Lil’s peppers, & shishito peppers
- Corn, egg yolk, & bacon
- Artichoke hearts, prosciutto, & sundried tomatoes
- Parsnip, kale, & prosciutto