Road Foodie

Some people drive simply to arrive.

My name is Brigit Binns, and I write cookbooks (23, and counting; ten of them for Williams-Sonoma). Each winter, I drive from New York to California. Every spring, I drive back. Along the way and throughout the year, I eat, think, drink, listen to location-appropriate books and music, and meet the locals.

For family reasons, Roadfoodie's Time in the West went on far longer than usual this year. While there, I managed to squeeze in two cookbooks (on slow cooking and soup, both good wintery subjects even in sunny California). Now I'm back in the Hudson Valley and embarked on three new projects. Way too busy, as usual—but a girl's gotta eat. To that end, I'll explore the sociological, gustatory, and inner life of the upcoming seasons in upstate New York, as well as Baja California and wherever else my peripatetic, porcine-focussed life should lead.

Wine Enough, and Time

Posted By on February 15, 2011

Red Wine Risotto

Scallop, Smoky Bacon, and Red Wine Risotto

When I was writing Joachim Splichal’s cookbook (Patina: Spuds, Truffles, and Wild Gnocchi), that highly-respected chef gave me a short, one-sentence piece of advice that permanently removed any fear of stirring. However, I know that, for home cooks, risotto ranks right up there with souffle in the “I can’t do it!” realm.

Here’s what Splichal told me, back when I was testing every incredibly-complex, restaurant-style recipe for his book in a home kitchen (with home-style skills and ingredients, natch): “Brigie, risotto must take eighteen minutes, from start to finish.” Period. End class, end fear of risotto. (For the full effect, imagine this being uttered in a deep and guttural German accent.)

To clarify, the eighteen minutes in question begins when you add the rice and ends when you remove the pan from the heat, and stir in the enrichment (butter, cheese), if any. So, when I decided to include a seafood-and-cured pork risotto in my upcoming book about cooking in California’s Central Coast wine country, the timing was never in question. Whenever I set out to develop a recipe (twenty-four cookbooks published, and counting), my first question is: How is this different, better, more finely focussed, than anything I’ve done before? What job do I want this dish to perform, what role will it take—value will it add—to the menu, or the recipe collection, of the buyer of this book?

Preparation, red wine risotto.

All ingredients should be assembled before the kick-off.

I must have been channeling travels and tables in Italy when I came up with this combo: Scallop, Smoky Bacon, and Red Wine Risotto. (I’ve discovered that starches—whether it’s pasta, rice, or even farro—ratchet up several orders of magnitude in flavor when simmered with some red wine, instead of just broth or water.)

No need for big, pricey, diver-caught scallops here—I want them bite sized and happily mingling with the plump, wine-swollen grains of Arborio—so little bay scallops are fine. For my cured-pork content, I wanted more than just any old bacon, so I sourced dark and smoky slices from the excellent New Frontiers market in SLO (San Luis Obispo). With all ingredients measured and assembled, I was ready to begin.

A little olive oil in the pan—about a tablespoon—helped begin the rendering process for the bacon, and smoothed the arrival of the next party-goer: red onion. Then came the scallops—but only for a minute or two—then I scooped everything out with a slotted spoon, leaving behind the smoky fat. In went the rice and on went my mental timer: 1:36 on a sunny Paso Robles Sunday afternoon.

Bay scallops getting intimate with smoky bacon.

I stir to coat the grains with smoky fat and begin a slight caramelization; when the rice starts to sizzle, in goes 2 cups of ’08 Zuma Vista, an earthy Syrah/Grenche blend made in Malibu by good friends. When most of the wine is absorbed, I commence adding my warm chicken broth. All the while, I regulate the heat so the liquid simmers excitedly but not explosively, keeping my eye on the clock and gauging my progress so that, when 1:54 pops up, I’m ready to return the scallop/bacon mixture to the pan, then pull it off the heat and stir in my enrichment (1 1/4 cups of grated Grana Padana) and my bright note (3/4 cup chopped baby arugula).

A great French wine for a lovely California risotto.

The reward for my efforts? A rich-bright-savory-smoky mound of seafood-flecked, wine-purple goodness. Happy faces, empty plates, and a truly estimable wine for quaffing with our wine-country lunch. Not to mention, another recipe for my next book that will enrich cook’s lives from Seattle to Sasketchewan. A recipe I can be proud of. I’d offer nothing less.

Let Caesar Be Caesar

Posted By on May 13, 2010

No question. The egg comes first.

Friends, Romaines, Countrymen: lend me your mouths.
We come to eat Caesar not to bury it.
And Caesar is an honorable salad.

Let us stop and consider the rich history—the provenance, if you will—of that crispy-creamy-salty tumble of leaves that is so beloved of restaurant-goers of all ages: the Caesar.

On second thought, let’s forget the when-where-who of it, because when you have such a piece of perfection, who cares? But therein lies the rub: Not all Caesar salads are created equal. Thus, today we are going to deconstruct this venerable bowl of greens and put it back together again better than ever.

Recipe: Best-Ever Caesar Salad

Romaine is the canvas for your dressing. It must be impeccably crisp.

First, there is the dressing. You will be making this yourself, of course. If you wish to use a bottled dressing, please browse immediately elsewhere, delete your Roadfoodie bookmark—and your culinary credibility. Forever.

I prefer to make my dressing in a mini-prep food processor, but you can also use a standard food processor, or a bowl and a small wire whisk. (I find that a blender runs too fast and imparts a metallic taste to the concoction.) Break a nice fresh farm egg and deposit only the yolk in the bowl (save the egg white in a container in the freezer for a future soufflé). Now use your garlic press to squeeze in the essence of 2 or 3 cloves of fresh (ie non-sprouted) garlic, adjusting the quantity to your personal taste. Add ½ teaspoon fine sea salt, a seriously generous grinding of fresh black pepper (Tellicherry or Malabar peppercorns are the best), a scant tablespoon of Dijon mustard, 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, 1 teaspoon each of Worcestershire sauce and red wine vinegar, and 1/3 cup good olive oil (don’t use your best oil here, it will be overwhelmed by all the strong flavors). Now, the anchovies: Gently rinse in warm water 2 or 3 anchovies from a glass jar—or, if it’s all that’s available, a little tin—and dry for a moment on a paper towel. Add them to the bowl of ingredients and pulse or whisk until the mixture is smooth. Omit the anchovies at your own risk: Your salad will be less than a Caesar, like a drop-dead gorgeous man or woman wearing a double-knit suit; heirloom tomatoes on a summer evening with no basil; Gordon Ramsay without his temper.

If you will not be using your dressing right away, cover it (scrape into a small glass jar; the dressing will stay good for two days, refrigerated). This makes enough for about six stripped-down hearts of Romaine—ie six people—and may be doubled.

We are well traveled. It is not a crouton, it is a croute.

Croutons: Since cubes are so last-century, you will have to make your own, but it’s easy! Get yourself a long slim loaf of Italian or French bread (baguette) and cut, with a serrated knife, on a sharp angle into ¼-inch slices (allow two to three slices per person). Place on a large rimmed baking sheet and preheat your oven to 350°. Now either brush or spray both sides of each slice with extra-virgin olive oil and season sparingly with fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Place in the oven for 10 minutes, then check the color (do not leave the house during this operation, or the bread will instantly burn). The slices should be only just beginning to show a hint of toasty color. Remove from the oven and, while still warm, rub one side of the croutons with the cut side of half a garlic clove. (If you like, you can cool and store these croutons in an airtight plastic container for a day or two, at room temperature.)

See how easy this is?

Your local supermarket carries the hearts of romaine, which make this salad easier to execute than it used to be, but there is still going to be a fair amount of wastage. (We’re going to assume the naughty romaine has been culled by now, and not hold it against this estimable, legendary lettuce.) This is because, for a really impeccable salad, you must use only the pale green, inner leaves. Thus, I always allow one romaine heart per person. Put the outer dark green, bruised, and floppy leaves on your compost heap, then immerse the superior, chosen leaves in a sink or large-bowlful of the coldest water your faucet will supply. Give a swish and let it stay there, basking in the coolness, for about ten minutes. Dry thoroughly in a salad spinner or very, very gently with clean kitchen towels. Wrap loosely in the towels and return to the refrigerator for ten to thirty minutes, while you grate the cheese and fiddle with something else in the kitchen. Or walk the poor, patiently-waiting dog. Chill your plates and, yes, and forks in the fridge. Overkill? Hardly.
On the fine holes of a grater, grate about one quarter cup of imported Parmigiano-Reggianno per person, or any other imported Parmesan or Asiago (sometimes labeled as Grana Padana).

I have made the Best-Ever Caesar, I have eaten it, and it is good. It is very, very good.

Now you are ready to assemble. Warning: You will need a Very Large Bowl. If you don’t have one (yet), use a really clean basin or large Tupperware: You need room to move.

First, wash your hands, with soap, and rinse them well. Now add the super-crisp romaine leaves to the bowl. If they are large, use a very sharp knife to cut them crosswise into thirds. If they are less than 4 inches long, leave them whole. (Do NOT bunch, squeeze, and then tear, as some men from my past (operative word) have been known to do. This horribly bruises the leaves, and me.) Drizzle the leaves with most of the dressing and toss gently with your hands, tossing until all surfaces of the lettuce are lightly and evenly coated. Add more dressing as you see fit, but don’t drown it. Scatter with about two thirds of the grated cheese, and toss again. Place a jumble of perfect Caesar on each chilled plate and top with a bit more cheese and two or three of the hip croutons. Wash your hands and proceed immediately to the finish line. Caesar—just like souffle—waits for no man.

Beware: Once you have made this salad for friends and family, they will want it over and over and over again. But you will become as an Emperor to them—a Caesar, perhaps.

Love In The Time of Cauliflower

Posted By on April 26, 2010

I looked down at the proudly offered plate, and everything on it was white.

Poached chicken, boiled potatoes, and something called “cauliflower-cheese.” It was my first-ever dinner in England, and who could have imagined that 24 hours later, I’d meet the man who would become my husband. It took him only two weeks—and a handful of dinners in France—to capture my heart. I spent the next seven years as an English housewife, during which time I ate a great deal of white food. In those days, instead of writing cookbooks, I merely admired, collected, and cooked from them. My brown-haired, blue-eyed British boy—a Morgan Stanley euro-bond trader—was supposed to be the great love of my life; I naturally assumed that rather staid, but comfortable life would take place in Europe. Because no one ever gets married to get divorced. But life has a way of throwing curve-balls, and if you’re not careful one of them will hit you in the head and knock all your teeth out. That’s what happened to me, but by that time we were living in Spain, my blue-eyed boy having been unceremoniously fired by Mother Morgan, divested of all his offshore bonus’, and reduced to a mass of pale and quivering English jelly.
A bit like cauliflower-cheese, really.

Kale, tossed with lard and roasted, provides the crucial green balance.

In Spain, I began to cook food with a great deal of color: tomatoes, peppers, olives, huge pink prawns, ruddy chorizo. As my cooking and cheeks gained color and the old bounce came back to my step, the Englishman seemed to deteriorate; he became pale and almost translucent, like an uncooked calamari. The rude and brilliant sun forced him indoors, to lick his wounds, wring hands over the empty bank-account, and make nefarious come-back plans. My path led in a different, more hopeful direction. The American pioneer inside me saw the road ahead littered with wonderful possibilities—I fermented a sourdough and baked my own bread, launched a catering business, planted a salad garden. I reached back to take hold of his hand, but found he had already offered it to another. In the end, our marriage couldn’t straddle the fault-line between white and color, shade and sun, regret and rebirth.

Now, I write cookbooks for a living, and no good food (especially a vegetable) is banned from my table just because it is white.
In the way a good dress can be brought out again a decade or two later, shortened, re-accessorized, appreciated anew; so too cauliflower can come to my table once again. And, yes, emphatically, with cheese.

Hope Springs Eternal.


Consoling and Creamy Cauliflower Purée

(adapted from my book The Low-Carb Gourmet Ten Speed Press ’04)
Serves 6

* 2 small cauliflowers (1 1/2 to 1 3/4 pounds each), thick stalks and leaves discarded, separated into rough, lime-sized florets with about 1 inch of the stem attached
* 1/2 cup heavy cream
* 7 ounces Manchego or Gruyere cheese, grated on the large holes of a box grater
* Fine sea salt and white pepper, preferably freshly ground

In the top of a steamer set over simmering water, steam the cauliflower for 20 to 25 minutes, until completely tender (test with a small, sharp knife). In a large food processor, combine the steamed cauliflower and cream; purée until completely smooth. Transfer to a warm bowl, fold in the cheese, about 3/4 teaspoon salt, and several turns of white pepper. Serve immediately or transfer to the top of a double boiler set over barely simmering water and hold for up to 30 minutes. (Or, cool, cover, and refrigerate for up to 6 hours; warm gently in a double boiler.)

A Burger for Our Age

Posted By on April 9, 2010

Foreshortening has caused this hunk of protein to look like the Burger That Ate New York. It's actually only seven ounces of beefy, porky goodness

I’m back in the Hudson Valley, after six months on the left coast, and the first thing I do is buy a freezer-full of meat from Turkana Farms in Germantown. It’s an antidote to the gray, cold days, a carnivore’s snuggle-blanket to protect me against the vicissitudes of a Northeast winter that doesn’t know when it’s worn out its welcome. (As far as I’m concerned, the welcome was frayed and shabby back in late November, but I know some people actually seem to love what they refer to as “the changing seasons”—a euphemism for misery if I ever heard one. Just sayin’.)

Grass-fed ground beef alone can be dry, so I add ground pork. What else is new?

Peter and Mark welcome me with radiant warmth—I think partially because the annual appearance of Brigit-in-search-of-protein signals the return of fecundity to their fair farm. We troop into their big kitchen—equal parts antique store, Bachelor Pad, and library—and pore over the possibilities: three packages of gloriously marbled Ossabaw-Tamworth chops, a picnic ham, Boston butt, primeval hunks of beef chuck and brisket, and, destined for tonight’s very special table, one and a half pounds of ground beef—all grass-fed, natch. Tonight’s menu warrants extra care because it marks a Significant Birthday for my Significant Other—aka C—from whom I’ve spent waaaay too much time away during the past six months. As a multiple-cookbook author, I have a U.S.A.-budget-sized number of great dishes in my repertoire. Sometimes, choosing just one can be difficult, and often I fall into a creative morass at the prospect of a special dinner.
But not this time.

This loose and leek-flecked patty is Ready for The Heat.

On the menu: Hamburgers. But I’m not talking about just any burger (a word with which, in case you care, virtually nothing rhymes except maybe, with license, perjure). This burger is to a fast-food patty as Barack Obama’s oratory style is to that of our late and unlamented ex-president. Don’t worry, it has everything a great burger should: hefty weight, lettuce, onion, and tomato. Only different. Also, somewhat counterintuitively, it contains some pork. Is that wrong? I don’t think so.

Recipe: Consolation-for-Aging Truffle Burgers

(Serves Six) Break up 1 1/2 pounds grass-fed ground beef and 1 pound ground pork with a fork until kinda crumbly. Season aggressively with sea salt and freshly ground pepper, and add about 2 tablespoons of minced leek or shallot. (Don’t be tempted to add other stuff—like chopped peppers and capers; although delicious, that would be meatloaf.)
Use a light hand when forming your burgers. Ie do not compress the patty too much, or the burger will be tough. Gather the meat loosely into thick disks of about 7 ounces each and two inches high, then flatten gently with a spatula until about 1 1/4 inches thick. Don’t worry that the burger seems too loose around the edges to hold together—as soon as it hits a hot pan, it will firm up nicely.

On a burger, frisee is to iceberg as silk is to sackcloth.

Refrigerate, uncovered, on a plate until 10 minutes before cooking time, then let stand at room temperature for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, for each diner, brush both sides of one or two slices of ciabatta or sourdough bread lightly with good olive oil, then toast until golden, and season. Rinse the pale inner leaves from two heads of frisee in very cold water and spin thoroughly dry. In a bowl, toss vigorously with a large, minced shallot and two chopped, juicy sun-dried tomatoes, sea salt and freshly ground pepper, plus 3 tablespoons truffle oil 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar.
Preheat the oven to its lowest setting, and put in your plates and a platter. Preheat a big, dry—but well seasoned—cast-iron skillet
to smokin’ hot. Season the burgers generously with more salt and pepper.
Transfer three of patties to the skillet, allowing plenty of airspace around each one, and cook for three minutes without any futzing. Flip over, cook for three minutes more, then transfer to the warm platter, and cook the remaining three burgers. (The oven-rested burgers will be on the medium side of medium-rare, while the second batch will be on the rarer side. To be sure, press down firmly in the center with your finger: if the surface gives easily under pressure, it’s still quite pink inside; if it’s springy and firm, it’s verging on medium. Divide among your guests according to taste and seniority.)
On each warm plate, place a perfectly-cooked burger on a slice of toast. Top with a mound of the truffle-scented frisee salad. Add the second slice of bread at a jaunty angle (or serve open-faced, like I do). If you are a truffle-hound, drizzle with a touch more truffle oil. Serve!

There is a certain protein-centric sensibility at work here, I agree.

Variation: My mom always concealed a blue-cheese-surprise in her burgers. (I never failed to manifest shock upon discovering its presence.) These days, I like to embed a walnut-sized chunk of Taleggio in the exact center of each burger, as I gently form it. Imagine your diner’s delight as they cut gently into the center with their fork (this is not the sort of burger one eats by hand, ok?), only to encounter a nugget of molten Italian cheesiness lurking within.

It may not be possible to stave off the (pretty much unavoidable) process of aging, but with meals like this, I hope to soften the blow. As I look around the happy faces at my table, it’s clear that I’m well on the way. We raise a glass of luscious Central Coast Pinot Noir, and my eyes meet his; there may be more crinkles around the edges of all four—eight if you count our glasses—but they were caused by plenty of mirth and laughter. I have no regrets.

What A Boar

Posted By on March 10, 2010

Boar1I am standing underneath a scarred, ancient oak tree on an isolated ranch far to the west of Paso Robles, in central California, with a dead body, a blond woman, and a strange man—I first laid eyes on him five minutes ago—who is holding a very, very sharp knife.

“It’s a surgical blade,” he says, with disarming cheer. It looks like a switchblade, to me. An ominous grumbling sound intrudes on the eery stillness of the sunny afternoon.

It’s coming from my stomach—I’m hungry.

The dead body is a 200-pound wild boar, the man is a hunter, and the blond woman is Mary Baker, of Central Coast Wine Blogs; she has opened doors for me in this wine community that I might otherwise have spent months—if not years—knocking on. In the next few hours, I will realize several things: I am not squeamish, the boar is destined to grace my table, and hunting wild animals requires patience and a skill-set I shall probably never possess. I also discover that riding a 3-seat, all-terrain-vehicle at blistering high speed down almost-vertical slopes, fishtailing through viscous and darkly muddy gulches, and ranging across the softly rolling, emerald green and oak-studded hills of a Central California magic hour is an activity from which I was mistakenly separated at birth.

Kurt Dubost's grilling station, set amongst the vines that produce the estate's estimable wine.

Kurt Dubost's grilling station, set amongst the vines that produce the estate's estimable wine.

I love this place with a fierceness like a lion’s, for her cub. And the prospect of many wild boar feasts makes me lick my lips and start mentally reviewing the possible repasts: civet, a riot of braises, “Drunken Boar”, a Paso Robles version of cassoulet (Passoulet?). I could get used to this lifestyle, and seriously hope to. But the fact that I’m not a hunter, and likely never will be, causes me nary a worry. Because the handsome, grinning man-with-a-knife—Matt Tupen—is a twenty-year veteran of the hunt—he first accompanied his father hunting in Hawaii at the age of five.

Matt has taken off from his day job—as a paramedic and father of four, in Ventura—to take me hunting on the stunningly beautiful Dubost Ranch, a 320-acre corner of California that grows cattle, barley, safflower, walnuts, persimmons, and wine grapesand makes highly respected wine. He’s been hunting in this area for twenty-years, and yet his sparkling eyes betray an abiding excitement for the chase, as well as profound reverence for the land and the animals that range upon it. His “day job” allows him the flexibility to work as a hunting guide, and his wide-ranging relationships with local ranch owners let him cherry-pick the spot according to his time-honed instincts. Eighty percent of his customers return to hunt with him again, and I can understand why.

Matt Tupen makes the initial incisions that will eventually allow him to pants the pig.

Matt Tupen makes the initial incisions that will eventually allow him to *pants* the pig.

“On the other side of those mountains,” Matt points toward the western horizon, where magic hour is just starting to mellow the light to soft honey, “the Santa Lucia range, is the Hearst castle. Many of the wild boar in this area are descended from German black pigs, escaped from the castle’s breeding program, as well as Eurasian pigs brought by immigrants who settled on the Central Coast in the 1800’s.” In fact, he says, all wild boar in California are domesticated pigs gone feral, like house-cats a generation or two away from the cosy hearth. I eye the rather prehistoric being hanging in the tree—elongated, covered with coarse hair, tusked—and compare it to the pink, hairless hogs that were ubiquitous as table-breeders before we re-discovered the tasty breeds of yore: the Berkshire, the Tamworth, the Duroc. In fifty years (countless generations, from a pig’s point of view), a sort of hyper, reverse-evolution has changed these animals almost beyond recognition. The hindquarters are slimmer, the forequarters heavier (the result of a super-thick shoulder-plate, designed for fighting). The hair is longer and darker, the legs shorter. The snout has become elongated, the fat-cap and marbling—results of a far more relaxed lifestyle—are almost nonexistent. Scientists say such profound changes take only a couple of generations. It’s warp-speed adaptability.

Matt is *pants-ing* the boar. There is very little fat on this energetic forager.

Matt is *pants-ing* the boar. There is very little fat on this energetic forager.

Although we do not actually shoot a boar on our hunt (Matt was worried we might not, so he took down our furry friend late on the previous night), I can see that hunting—for this outdoorsman, anyway and, by definition, his clients—is about as far from shooting ducks in a barrel as you can get. For one thing, the State of California places strict restrictions on the hunt, and even though we are far from anyone who’d conceivably object if rules were broken, I get the impression that no true pro would be caught dead stepping outside the boundaries. The pigs tend to come out only after dark, but you are only allowed to shoot them before sunset. You need a California Pig Tag for every animal you plan to take (they’re available for a nominal fee at any sporting goods store). The meat is always eaten, and with relish: this is no trophy sport. Any responsible hunter kills only what he/she and their family and friends will consume. You are cheek-by-jowl with the age-old cycle of death and nutrition, here.
This boar will forage (local farmers might prefer the term rampage) no more.

This boar will forage (local farmers might prefer the term rampage) no more.

Matt cautions me and Mary (both breathless at this far from quotidian adventure) that once the ATV comes to a halt we must keep very still, and very quiet. As the ATV barrels down a precipitous incline, spraying mud, we try to quench our girly squeals of glee, jabbing one another in the ribs while shout-whispering “Shhhhhhh!!!” For Matt, this is no joy-ride: His eyes are darting quickly back and forth from hillock-top to ravine-bottom, binoculars at the ready, and he spots wild turkeys, deer, and coyotes that I would surely have missed. But today, no boar.

Back at the ranch, our stand-in boar awaits. He is not going anywhere, except to dinner, with us. So, too, waits a large but delicate glass of Dubost’s 2008 Alexandrine, a luscious blend of Viognier and Roussane that expertly expresses the very soil with which we have just become so intimate.

We gaze into it’s golden depths and lift our glasses to life, and death, and dinner.

Matt Tupen, of Tupen Outdoors, can be reached at 805-402-6137 or He shoots, usually at long-range, with a Winchester.

Chasing the Champignons

Posted By on January 18, 2010

Wild Salmon with Garlicky Chanterelles and Kale Chips

Wild Salmon with Garlicky Chanterelles and Kale Chips

The phone rang at 8:26 am.

“What are you doing right now?” I overheard the female voice asking my husband. “Can you be here in five minutes? This isn’t going to last for long.” I cocked a sleepy eye over the top of Stella’s smooth, warm head at C, who has been sleeping late during our luscious month-long stay in San Luis Obispo, so welcome after the three months apart. Outside, the warm morning sunshine was quickly drying the glistening remnants of last night’s rain from the rose bushes.

“Honey….?” I queried. But C was dressed and roaring off down the long gravel driveway before I could finish the sentence. One and a half hours later he was back, disheveled and smelling a little musty, grinning from ear to ear like the Cheshire Cat.

Chanterelles, plump for the plucking.

Chanterelles, plump for the plucking.

“Look!” he crowed, and opened up a large brown paper bag.

Pounds and pounds of plump, firm gold and cream-colored chanterelles met my gaze. Flecked with leaf mold and still moist and pliable, they were like flanged harbingers of flavor, full of the promise of early spring in the second week of January here on California’s Central Coast.

Erin, the immensely generous soul who had called C, is known locally as The Pig Lady—so I knew she was a kindred soul from the moment we met. On her 100-acre property in mumble-mumble Canyon, about 5 miles from the center of San Luis, the clustered oak trees offer a harvest that’s far more valuable than acorns. Whenever the conditions are right (moist, deep leaf-mold and mild temperatures), her forests literally teem with these sought-after fungi. (When we offered a bag to French friends who make award-winning wine in the Templeton Gap area west of Paso Robles, they were gob-smacked. “I have acres and acres of oak trees, and I have never, ever found any chanterelles,” complained Beatrice sadly. Paso is, of course, much dryer and appreciably colder than San Luis in the winter. Fine for vines, but not conducive to the spores that produce one of France’s most beloved mushrooms.)

The haul.

The haul.

Whenever the heavens conspire to provide these fungi-friendly conditions, Erin must move fast. If she doesn’t get out there and forage under the roots and tree canopies, searching for that tell-tale flash of French-vanilla color, then the wild pigs—or, sadly, poachers—are likely to beat her to the punch. Sometimes, she traps a smaller pig and roasts it up for supper (the really big pigs, although destructive, are far too gamy to make good eating). Every April, Erin buys a few piglets from a local farmer, and they cavort in bliss and freedom on her canyon ranchette. (That is, until the day—usually about 90 later—that she carts them up to Paso Meats, a bespoke slaughterhouse in Paso Robles. I yearn to live close enough to share the cost and upbringing of one of these swine someday.)

Faced with this plethora of potent shroomage, I leapt into action. C set to work gently brushing the leaf-mold from all sides of the fungi with a soft brush. (Just say “no” to washing—they soak up water like a sponge, and it never goes away. Besides, leaf mold is not exactly dirt.) Soon, he had batch number one of the haul ready to tumble.

My proud forager with about a quarter of his haul.

My proud forager, with about a quarter of his haul.

First, I pulled out the three-day rustic red-wine short ribs leftover from New Year’s Eve. After I’d warmed and shredded the meat, I combined it with some of the attendant red wine reduction sauce and shards of precious chanterelles that had been butter braised until golden. I showered the mixture with a drift of flat-leaf parsley, stirred in a few minced anchovies and a little more cultured butter for good measure, then spooned the resulting ragout over rigatoni. That was night number one.

Two nights later, our host, cousin Robert, requested fish. At New Frontiers, the estimable market in San Luis, there was wild sockeye salmon, and there was kale. Garlic from Robert’s vegetable garden awaited me back at home, so the dish had taken on a shape and identity even before I began to ponder.

Cousin Robert, the original locavore, is very happy about the 'shrooms. And the kale.

Cousin Robert, the original locavore, is very happy about the 'shrooms. And the kale.

This time, I sauteed the chanterelles in olive oil, so I could take them beyond tender into the realm of crispy and concentrated. When they were edged with a slight char, I stirred in five or six minced cloves of garden garlic, and turned down the flame. In the oven I was roasting kale to the shatter stage, to the delight of cousin Robert (“I’ve never had roasted kale before,” he exclaimed). I decided not to turn cooking the salmon into brain surgery. It was, after all, already perfect: an almost neon orange, moist, and dense. When the kale came out, the salmon went in. Twelve minutes later I lifted the filets from the skin, which had obligingly stuck to the baking parchment. I topped the filets with garlic-forward champignons and mounds of rustic-delicate kale chips. Woodsy. Ethereal. Dirt-simple.

Eureka! We have found them!

Recipe: Wild Salmon with Garlicky Chanterelles and Kale Chips
Serves 4

Olive oil, sea salt, freshly ground pepper, and balsamic vinegar
1 bunch kale, leaves pulled from stems in bite-sized pieces, washed and dried
About 1 pound fresh chanterelles, brushed clean, stem end trimmed if dry and woody
5 or 6 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 pounds wild salmon filet

Preheat the oven to 375F.
On a large rimmed baking sheet, drizzle the kale with some olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Toss and massage with your fingertips until each piece is coated with a thin layer of salty oil. Bake for 15 minutes, then toss with tongs and roast for 5 to 6 minutes more (the kale should be deep, dark green with occasionally brown edges).
Meanwhile, slice the mushrooms about 1/3-inch thick, then cut into manageable chunks. Warm some olive oil in a saute pan and cook the mushrooms until they give up their liquid. Keep cooking until all the liquid is evaporated and the pieces begin to brown. Add a little more olive oil to keep them from scorching. Season, then stir in the garlic and 1/2 teaspoon balsamic vinegar; cook for 1 minute more.
Place the salmon skin side down on baking parchment, on another baking sheet. Season with salt and pepper. Remove the kale and let rest while the salmon goes in for 10 to 12 minutes per inch of thickness. Divide the salmon among warm plates and top with chanterelles and kale.

Gentle Dreamer, Part Two

Posted By on January 13, 2010

All the elements are gathered, awaiting only the players.

All the elements are gathered, awaiting only the players. I'm thrilled to be one of them.

When our gentle hero from Part One, Cosimo, began to amass an estimable collection of wine—his own, plus some of the top labels and vintages in the world—it became clear that he needed somewhere to put them. The bespoke cellars that adorn the West’s redundant crop of McMansions run into the “mid five figures.” (Can you can tell I’ve been near Hollywood for a little too long?) Cosimo, understandably, was nonplussed at the high cost. But the fact remains brutally true that investment in—and the creation of—good wines will be wasted if the liquid gold isn’t stored safely at an appropriate temperature and humidity.

When a local workman suggested the purchase of an old refrigerated metal shipping container, the kind that cranes lift on and off of ships, Cosimo initially shrugged it off as impossible, not to mention severely lacking in aesthetic value. (After all, this is a man who places great value on beauty.) Then, he heard the price: $2,000., for a ten-year-old container, certified by the USDA for food transport. Suddenly, Cosimo started thinking seriously about the possibilities, and it wasn’t long before he was scrambling to finish pouring the concrete pad that is now home to the very large metal box that now houses the Pizzulli wine collection.

Cosimo in the door of his cost-efficient brain child of a wine cellar.

Cosimo in the door of his cost-efficient-brain-child of a wine cellar.

“First, I ripped out the old 3-phase air-conditioning compressor, which was basically useless,” he says. “Then, I cut a hole in the rear wall of the container and installed a brand new Breeze-Air.” (Cost: about $1500.) Now his cellar was secure, and boasted a state-of-the-art temperature control, but although he could happily store his smaller barrels inside, there was still no support system for the bottles. He checked with a wine rack retailer, but found the cost, again, high. Not to mention the fact that the racks would have to be modified to fit the container efficiently, adding further cost to the project.
The artist in his man-cave (pronounce "cave" the French way), with tasting table and Breeze-Air...

The artist in his man-cave (pronounce *cave* the French way), with tasting table and Breeze-Air visible behind the magnum.

Cosimo asked his uncle, a retired carpenter, to give him a hand building the racks. The two men spent six hours a day for four days, cutting, stapling, and erecting the sections. Three more days were spent setting up the racks and fitting them carefully together like a puzzle. “The beautiful thing about this is that anyone could do it—all you need is a level pad and power,” says Cosimo.

“Very Thomas Jefferson,” I say. And despite the utilitarian look, aesthetically pleasing, too. In this case, form follows not terribly far behind function. Cosimo added a tall wood table for tastings, and framed a few of his early labels. This man-cave is literally full of joy, both the liquid kind and the emotion. “You could clad the outside with wood, or bury it in the side of a hill,” says Cosimo. But he’s finished with the cellar, for now—eager to get back to his true passion: making great wines.

Cosimo's focus on spare beauty and richness is evident in the wines as well as his labels.

Cosimo's focus on richness and a certain sort of spare elegance is evident in the wines as well as his labels..

The Pizzulli wines aren’t available to the public except at a very few Los Angeles restaurants, such as Drago, Baldi, and Grill on the Alley. Only fifty cases of that luscious Dolcetto were made, because the grower up in the Central Coast is losing interest in the varietal.

One taste of the Pizzulli Dolcetto should rekindle it.

A Gentle American Dreamer

Posted By on December 28, 2009

Here is a very happy man; his name is Cosimo Pizzuli.

Here is a very happy man; his name is Cosimo Pizzuli.

(Part One.)
It’s worth noting, as we wend our way toward a new decade (new decade? What the Hell happened? You have a glass of wine and a few olives and all of a sudden it’s been ten years since the millennium!), that there are many versions of the American Dream.

Often, the rags-to-riches model is the only American Dream we acknowledge and, certainly, life is easier when you have a few bucks in your pocket. It’s clear that people with money (PWM, in future) often live longer, because they can afford good preventative medical care and tend to eat a more balanced diet. But having money—whether you were born into it, married it, or earned a great deal of it—doesn’t necessarily equal happiness (eavesdrop on a few treadmill conversations at a gym in Calabasas, if you need proof that PWM are no happier than the average unemployed Jo-beth). And, it doesn’t mean that the pinnacle of aspiration for every American is a house with ninety ‘leven bedrooms, a wrapping room, and a six-car garage.

Vines on the edge, at the Pizulli estate

Vines on the edge, at the Pizulli estate.

Sometimes prosperity results in the fulfillment of another kind of dream, one that is about an organic creative process, dirty fingernails, and the joy of giving birth to something far more profound than a really large bill from Needless Markup. In the Pacific Palisades, one of La-La Land’s most affluent suburbs (and this is—take it from a native who missed out on the last five years of excess—saying a lot), you can meander down a lane lined with big houses, and discover a gate to a very different kind of heaven-on-earth, one with no home-gym, no his-n-hers walk-in closets, no 12-acre designer kitchen with multiple sinks and dishwashers.

Here, interior architect Cosimo Pizzuli and his wife Christine have created a simple little farm that wouldn’t be out of place on a hillside in Chianti. For a native New Yorker of Italian ancestry who is more than a little bit in touch—or perhaps, in love—with his Italian roots, it is a paradise of uncommon luster. In his design practice, Cosimo concentrates on the postwar Italian aesthetic, which combines beauty with economy, and his home is the natural expression of those values—the antithesis of the Italianate McMansions that festoon many of the adjoining hills. To walk the small, lovingly created vineyard and vegetable beds with Cosimo, to sip the fruits of his labor by the outdoor stone fireplace with a hunk of pungent cheese and a plateful of Christine’s ethereal fried squash blossoms, is to see what a new American Dreamer can accomplish when his taste runs more to hand-mashing grapes than to having multiple Mercedes. It is impossibly Thomas Jefferson-esque, here, a world out of time, in a time that fairly cries out for escape. Was not Jefferson—he who considered the introduction of the wine vine to America of more importance than erasing of the national debt—the original American Dreamer?

Christina, when not directing operating room services at UCLA Medical Center, is a talented and fearless cook. (As RF readers know, I just LOVE a fearless fryer.)

Christina, when she's not directing operating room services at UCLA Medical Center, is a talented and fearless cook. (As RF readers know, I just LOVE a fearless fryer.)

Ten years ago, when Cosimo and Christine bought the one and a half-acre property nestled unobtrusively atop a canyon that leads down to the glittering Pacific, there was only a small, clapboard house, a non-functioning swimming pool, and some very steep hillsides of the type normally associated, at least in this part of the world, with fire and mudslides. Now, after the Pizzulli’s two children have mostly grown and are soon to fly away, the small clapboard house remains, mostly unchanged. (Except for the huge, conversation-stopping family portrait that dominates the tiny living room; this is a riotous, vibrant, and colorful oil, full of insider-only allegory, that was painted by an Italian artist friend. In it, oddly, Cosimo looks rather like Thomas Jefferson.)

Oh, but around the house, what wonders have been wrought! Those steep hillsides have been painstakingly terraced, and planted with vines and, depending on the season, tomatoes, fava beans, and/or arugola. The swimming pool has been renovated with admirable restraint, and now sparkles amid the scrub oak that is the natural and native landscape for my beloved home state of California. Across the driveway from the house stands a generous, open-air wine-making shed equipped with an electric crusher (“I started with a manual crusher,” says Cosimo “but it was seriously hard work. After a few harvests I decided to treat myself.”) Besides the grapes from his own property, Cosimo also makes wine from grapes he buys from one particular, old-world-style Italian emigrant farmer in the nascent Central Coast wine region, an area around Paso Robles that is home to some the most cool-ass cowboys of today’s wine world.

An Italian-esque Monticello, hidden in the Palisades.

An Italian-esque Monticello, hidden in the Palisades.

Cosimo is committed to Italian grape varietals. “I opened up some bottles for you to taste,” he says, when we drop in for a sunny Sunday afternoon visit in late November. “Here’s a Dolcetto,” he says, giggling like a schoolboy at the sheer joy of it all. (Later, when I tasted this amazingly rich and nuanced wine, I giggled for joy as well.) The wine produced from the Palisades grapes tends to a rather “refreshing” style, because the 30-foot rows face mostly east, and thus don’t get enough sun to register much higher than 19 or 20 brix, resulting in only 9 or 10% alcohol. “It’s like a very light rose,” he says, slightly apologetic, like a Hollywood executive whose Porsche has not been waxed this week. But the wines he’s really proud of come from the Central Coast grapes, and we are blown away by the fruity depth and unobtrusive but powerful backbone of these dark and leggy wines. These wines stand firmly in the same league with some of California’s most talented garagistes—Cosimo’s tentative pride is way justified.

Cosimo makes his wines the old-fashioned way—without benefit of chemicals during the vinification process, or sulfites to act as preservatives. In this way he can express the terroir of the land and the fruit itself, but the approach is dangerous—not for the faint of heart: “Knock wood—I haven’t made any vinegar yet,” he says, and relates the story of an Italian white wine he was recently “allowed to purchase” from an uppity wine merchant in New York’s Union Square. “It is 25 years old and still alive, still moving, still an unbelievable wine.” Cosimo derives great happiness from his wine-making, but he is deadly serious about the process. When the 2008 Dolcetto registered a very high brix, of 28, he was afraid the intense heat of fermentation might kill the natural yeasts (“They’re not the strongest little fellows”). So he asked his winemaker to recommend a commercial yeast. One teaspoon, dissolved in a quart of water and poured over the juice, did the trick. The fermentation finished safely, the yeast was racked out, and a year and half later we’re savoring the luscious result.

What began as a passionate hobby has now produced wines that are truly estimable and in demand, wines to trade with other winemaking friends and even, on occasion and for a lucky few, to buy. Inevitably, there now comes the need for a safe place to store a great many great bottles. Cosimo looked into the cost of digging a wine cave into the side of the hill that embraces the property, and found the numbers unappealing. A friend suggested he buy an old steel refrigerated shipping container.

(End of Part One)

Another Wine Country

Posted By on November 29, 2009

At Thomas Hill Organics in Paso Robles: a scene from the two-hanky film of my life.

At Thomas Hill Organics in Paso Robles: another scene from the two-hanky film of my life.

I’ve never required much motivation to hop into the car and drive toward wine, food, and fire.
But when the lure includes soft, rolling hills bristling with closely-ranked vines, olive trees waving silvery foliage, and lavender puffs busy with visiting bees—why, then, I’m like a randy tom-cat with one simple agenda. Even after five years, the northeast has failed to fully capture my heart. That organ, still unaccountably hopeful after feathering nine nests—and entering into three marriages, all of which were and are intended to be the last—remains forever true to the land of my birth: California.

Twice now, in the past mumble-mumble years, there have been seemingly good reasons to leave California, whether it was college or my pioneer spirit. There’s always been a better reason to come back. And the Central Coast of California, specifically Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo, retain the flavor of my old California far better than today’s leafy and unequal land of Brentwood.

Tom counsels C on the correct procedure for punching down the grapes. Even the air is full of wine here.

Tom counsels C on the correct procedure for punching down the grapes. Even the air is full of wine here.

A few minutes east of Paso there’s a little bed & breakfast on a hill, called Villa Valdemosa, with a view that will break your heart if you have ever spent time in Tuscany. This welcoming place is eclectic and personal; you’ll feel like the houseguest of it’s opinionated and urbane winemaking host-owner, Tom Roebuck. There’s a European sensibility in and around the home, not surprising since Tom is a Franco- and Italo-phile who has filled the public spaces with wine-centric reading material and decor. (Note that it’s virtually the only choice if Fido’s along for the adventure—what’s wrong with the innkeepers of Paso? Don’t they know we want to travel with our dogs?).

Tom is actively engaged in making wine, as well as music, and if you’re of a mind, he’ll take you by the hand and share both. This ruggedly handsome sixty-something refugee from myriad past lives tools around town in either an open-topped mercedes or a no-nonsense truck, and is—one feels this is only a temporary situation—a solo player.

A view I'd happily live forever with, and in.

A view I'd happily live forever with, and in.

He’s like a poster-boy for the social viniculture of California’s third wine region, languidly begining to catch up with Napa and Sonoma. Here, the price of wine grapes has dropped drastically, and yet every other person you meet makes their own wine. Not all do so with such cellar-rat creativity as Tom: Large vineyards harvest with machines which are unable to take grapes from the last few vines on a row; friendly winemakers let Tom help himself, and from these classy cast-offs comes a wine of depth and personality as bracing and rich as his own. You’ll likely not see it in a store, but if you dally for a day or three at his hilltop aerie, you might get to taste, perchance even to buy.
Pork belly and kabocha-squash salad (aka the Roadfoodie menu) accompanied by a glass of local rose.

Pork belly and kabocha-squash salad (aka the Roadfoodie menu) accompanied by a glass of local rose.

In the last five years, the dining scene in Paso has achieved critical mass. Villa Creek is no longer the only estimable table in town, and the darling of the last several years, Artisan, now has a serious contender for thehot California local-seasonal-sustainable crown. (There’s no need to jostle for prominence, however, because a town that’s fast growing as the third wine-country touring destination of this great state needs more than two or three great restaurants.) Thomas Hill Organics, started by ex-white-collar farming couple Joe and Debbie Thomas as a venue to present some of the produce from their ten-acre organic farm, makes it possible to vary the dining-out program, deliciously, on a three-day or three-week stay in the area. Educating the public is part of the program here—learning to enjoy produce in the season that nature provides it takes a little getting used to—but there’s no proselytizing. Wines come from local vignerons, most using green methods and many of them known to the brand new restaurateurs (and often found hanging out on the luscious patio). Debbie is charmingly disarming about their raison d’etre: “We thought maybe a restaurant would be a good idea,” says the professed ex-Nike office drone, who has bucked the trend toward disaster that overtakes the majority of brand new restaurants, especially those helmed by novices. Paso Robles is a terroir in flux, tripped up a bit by the recession, but ready to pick itself up and start moving forward in tasty new directions at the drop of a chapeaux. I can’t wait until our next, lusciously longer visit, in January. There is more wine to be drunk, vistas to contemplate, and—more importantly—farmers of tasty pork to seek out and befriend. I’m so there.

Now That’s Rich

Posted By on November 23, 2009

California's state flower may be a bird of paradise, but mine's an artichoke. Camarillo's blooming with them.

California's state flower may be a bird of paradise, but mine's an artichoke. Camarillo's blooming with them.

In case anyone has a doubt about this, I’ll just go on record and say that a two-month separation is not good for any couple. One month apart, or a couple of weeks, can be invigorating. Any longer, and the culture of the partnership begins to sound and feel different. Having said that, we had both agreed that in this one-off case, the cause—ie, a good, long mom-time—was a good one. And lo and behold, the woman who would “never work again” as of last summer has written an entire book, plus half a book proposal, and cemented a third book deal since we two last broke bread and lifted glasses unto one another (sounds kinda religious, huh?). So when C finally gets off the plane from NY, here early for the Thanksgiving festivities (interestingly—or not—by way of both Ft Lauderdale and Austin), There is a great deal to celebrate. We waste no time on familial niceties and instead head straight up the glorious Pacific Coast, backdrop of my birth and permanent home of my soul. Now, I get to add my soul-mate to the mix! It just doesn’t get any better than this.
This Malibu table has provided liquid sustenance after so many journeys.

This Malibu table has provided liquid sustenance after so many journeys.

When I was seventeen, the Beach Boys were de rigeur for this glittering drive, but now it’s all about catching up. Stella’s head is out the window, backlit by the sun, and she is safe in daddy’s lap again. First stop is Malibu, for a dinner that’s worthy of one of Dutch’s special bottles, a Chateauneuf from the village right next door to Vaison, where he and Andrea used to live and make wine. I’m supplying supper, and need a menu that’s super-quick to execute but complex enough for the wine. The new-ish Whole Foods in Venice (the largest in the country) provides everything I need: 2 pounds of 15%-fat ground beef, a loaf of rustic bread, cultured organic butter, and a pot of their cilantro-scallion hummus. I arrive at the meat counter just in time to grab the last mound of beef, a mere heartbeat ahead of a woman who seems genuinely pissed off to have missed out. I half-heartedly indicate the generous pile of 7%-fat beef, but, she scoffs, and I simply apologize once again. An estimable burger is made with fatty meat. End of recipe.
Finally here, C and Stella approach the iconic La Super Rica, in Santa Barbara.

Finally here, C and Stella approach the iconic La Super Rica, in Santa Barbara.

Up in Malibu, C and I dance around the patio with a glass of Chalone in one hand (Dutch and Andrea have put on our wedding CD from Italy for the occasion). Then I mince a large shallot and fold it, along with a large pinch of both French sea salt and smoked paprika, into the meat, which I have pulled apart with a fork. Now I form it into four relatively equal patties, with a very light hand, and press them into disks. Some minced garlic and a drift of snipped chives have been folded in my new favorite butter, and the bread is toasted until golden, then slathered with this manna. The burgers are now golden from the griddle, and they go onto the bread; I top them with a limpid puddle of the bright green hummus, and the very fine wine is poured. It’s a truly fine how-do-you-do.
Never once do I spot the tortilla lady smiling, but she makes me do so.

Never once do I spot the tortilla lady smiling, but she makes me do so.

I’ll skip over the details of our first night together in two months. This is a travel, wine, and dine forum. But I have lost eight pounds in two months, despite the one hundred slow cooker recipes (can you say “stress”?), and am told that I “feel like a different woman.” Which has got to be fun.

In the morning, we three head north—together again, and driving, as we should always be—towards Paso Robles, but no drive up this coast is complete without a stop at the taco stand of every southern Californian’s dreams: La Super Rica, in Santa Barbara. (Translated: The Really Rich Place; Take the Milpas exit off 101 and head away from the ocean until you spot the little blue and white building on your right; it’s closed on Wednesday, so beware. And try to arrive before noon or after 1;45, or allow for a substantial wait.) I order Queso Especial, melty cheese which comes studded with oily chunks of chorizo and lazy dark threads of cilantro; C has the impossibly toothsome and crisp pork tacos, and we split a mound of bright, freshly smashed guacamole. The tortilla lady shares a crowded stove with the grill man, and she’s like an mean machine, grabbing hunks of snow-white masa, rolling them between two padded palms, then quick-smart pressing them in the tortilla press before they fly onto the griddle.

I have never been one to shrink away from a viscous pool of melted cheese.

I have never been one to shrink away from a viscous, glossy pool of melted cheese.

On the road again, we both do a bit of Friday afternoon business from the traveling office that is the Highlander, just so it seems like we’re not completely hors de combat. Up in Paso, and a few miles east, there’s a little table bathed in magic hour sunshine, a bottle beaded with condensation like a hundred diamond tennis-bracelets, and a lot more catching up to do. I’d forgotten what our life together was like. It’s a language I am fluent in; I pick it up and hold it close, like a cat that’s been lost in the rain.