• A Big Bowl Of Polenta

    pol2Well, winter never really made it here to Norcal, but there is nothing better on a foggy, rainy and/or chilly day than a bowl of polenta. And since we get plenty of fog, even in summer, polenta is a popular choice here at the farm. So popular, we didn’t think of it as something for the blog. But since Judy Rodgers passed, we think a lot about her and her polenta recipe. So we figured we would share.

    pol1pol4The key to making polenta (cornmeal mush) is that it just isn’t all that hard. You don’t need any special technique and you don’t need to stir every second. You just need to be mindful and take your time. You will hear all sorts of polenta making B.S. “advice” about stirring every second and how you drizzle the cornmeal, etc. Forget all that. Rodgers has you cook the polenta at low heat in a heavy-bottom pot, stir every few minutes to avoid scorching and hold in a double boiler to improve texture and allow quick service. And it works. We play frisbee and basketball with the kids while making this dish. We just duck in the kitchen every 5 minutes, give the pot a stir and then it is back to fun outside….nice.

    pol5pol6The only real “challenge” here is how to add flavor to the polenta. Just butter and seasoning makes for a way better dish than you might expect. Parmesan and/or mascarpone cheese are common additions, and how Rodgers served it at Zuni. But we like to go a bit further and make polenta into a 1-dish meal. We like stirring in the parmesan, adding a soft-boiled egg, crumbled bacon and then topping with a bright salad of parsley or celery greens. Other good additions are braised greens, prosciutto, sautéed mushrooms, tomato jam and braised short ribs (yum).

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  • Winter Never Came, But We Still Have Spring

    springWell, we never really got winter this year in Norcal. We did get some rain, and may get some more, but what we call “cold and wintry weather” (but really isn’t) never arrived. I guess it was sucked in by the polar vortex. Once the rains came, the plants came roaring back to life. The bees are working the wisteria, the roses are about to burst, hummingbirds are sprinting from flower to flower and the bluebirds flicker in the sun. We will take it.

    spring1spring2spring8Meanwhile, in the garden the greens look beautiful (taste good, too) and the blueberries are in flower. We have fennel everywhere and the artichokes are sending up canes. The herb garden seems to double in size every day (at least the mint). Excellent.

    spring3spring4spring5spring6In the orchard, this is our favorite time of year. The citrus is at its best, with Meyer and Eureka lemons and Cara-cara oranges all looking and tasting lovely. Some seem to make their way into a few cocktails. And the stone fruit trees are starting to flower. Nothing prettier in the world….So much for winter. We will gladly take the spring.

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  • Backyard Kauai Flowers

    flower5Kauai is known as the “Garden Isle”, and for good reason. It rains. A lot. Over many consecutive weeks days. And then sometimes the sun comes out and all that rain seems worthwhile. Kauai is one of the greenest places on earth, but along with the green comes the flowers. And you don’t need to go far to find them.

    flower3flower8Some of the flowers of Kauai are hidden treasures that require special knowledge and long, treacherous secret hikes. But most are there for all to see, on the sides of the road or even in your back yard. A quiet stroll in Kauai might just give you some of the best colors you will see in your lifetime….or you might just get rained on. It’s worth the risk.

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  • The Winter That Wasn’t

    winter3We don’t take much to complaining here at the farm. Life is a blessing, and while things can (and do) go wrong all the time, we prefer to look at the positive. When its 75 degrees and sunny in late January, it’s hard to complain. When you still have mint in the garden, flowers, bees and hummingbirds, it’s hard to complain. And it is even harder to complain when we have tasty winter veggies and citrus thriving in the garden.

    winterwinter4winter5But this seemingly endless summer is a problem. Outside the fence line (and away from irrigation) California is brown and dry. Parched. We have a serious drought. And even for a state that always seems short on water, we are truly short right now. Usually California is green in winter and then brown in summer. It’s looking like a brown year.

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  • A Gift Guide For The Home Cocktail Enthusiast

    danger9So let’s say you have a friend or family member who is into mixing cocktails. And let’s go a bit further and say they are worthy of a gift. What should you get them? Well, we guess you could get them a bottle of their favorite booze. But since it is their favorite booze they probably have it already. And, truth be told, making drinks doesn’t require much fancy gear.

    Nope, what we suggest here at the Farm is a bit of creative thinking and perhaps giving cocktail gifts that will last. Cocktail gifts that inspire. Cocktail gifts with some “legs”. Gifts that might lead to better drinks…and perhaps even a few more of them. Yup, that’s what we’re talking about. And here are a few suggestions:

    Really Good Vermouth:

    What? Vermouth? The stuff that’s been sitting on the shelf for years for when aunt Edna comes by and wants a Manhattan? Or the bottle you glance at while making a dry Martini? Yes, that stuff. But it can be so much better.

    It turns out that there is some delicious vermouth out there. Vermouth you can happily drink on its own, but also makes for delightful cocktails. (And, by the way, you need to keep vermouth in the fridge after you open it- that’s why that old stuff tastes so bad). Try a few classic cocktails with good, fresh vermouth and you will stop asking for super-dry Martinis and you may rediscover the glory of a good Manhattan.

    So what to buy? There are a lot of choices, but for sweet vermouth we suggest a bottle of Carpano Antica. This is the “grandaddy” of sweet vermouth and it packs a lot of big flavors. Carpano ain’t cheap, but it is good. It also comes in half bottles that are less expensive and fit better in the fridge. The bottle is quite beautiful and will “wow” anyone who is lucky enough to get Carpano as a gift.

    Carpano Antica Bottle-Low-ResOther good sweet vermouth include Cocchi Vermouth di Torino and Dolin. If we got either as gifts we would be very happy.

    vermouth-dolin-dryWhat about dry vermouth? There are a number of good, affordable options, but we suggest a bottle of Dolin Dry vermouth. This stuff simply rocks. Dolin will make for a great Martini, but also adds herbal depth and bittersweet notes to classics like the Scofflaw. And Dolin also happens to come in nifty half bottles. Heck, you could even give a combo pack of Carpano Antica and Dolin Dry to that special someone. Excellent.

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  • Farewell Judy Rodgers

    fires11When I told Carolyn that Judy Rodgers had died of cancer, her face showed the same level of shock, sadness and confusion that I felt upon hearing the news. “How old was she”?, Carolyn asked, “just 57″, I relied. “That’s terrible….too young” said Carolyn “too young”.

    A few hours later, my good friend Chad texted “RIP Judy Rodgers”. Chad knew Judy, as he was a chef in San Francisco in the 1990′s when Rodgers, and her Zuni Cafe, were at their height. Chad, his wife Monica, Carolyn and I spent a number of magical moments together at Zuni. Chad was deeply saddened. So was I.

    I didn’t know Rodgers personally, and only occasionally saw her at Zuni. She was famously private and didn’t crave the limelight, even at the restaurant. There are many more “famous” celebrity chefs out there, but few have the influence or lasting success of Judy Rodgers. She was a hidden treasure, and yet one of our greatest inspirations.

    We are most influenced by those we know. I have both my parents to thank for a love of food, and perhaps more importantly, a lack of fear about food. Food was good and to be enjoyed….period. Carolyn gives me an understanding and love of entertaining and hospitality that is at the core of our lives together. My friend Chad Callahan gave me some of my first exposure to what fine dining really meant, the importance of sourcing the right ingredients and using good technique. Hiro Watanabe, our favorite sushi chef, showed me that it’s best to serve just a few great dishes, and not many average ones.

    When I think about cooking these are some of my touchstones.

    But of the broader influences I have, Judy Rodgers, and the Zuni experience, show up in my cooking almost every day. Her cooking was simple, flavorful and well executed. She used the best ingredients and was unafraid to let them stand on their own.

    These days, many chefs like to tell you what plot at the farm the kale came from, how “heirloom” the seeds are and then use every piece of offal from a pig- just to make an impression. And that is fine. Judy Rodgers would do that if it made the dish better. But if a simple bowl of polenta with a bit of parmesan or mascarpone was the best dish, that is what she would serve.

    And it wasn’t just the food. Zuni was a restaurant that felt, and still feels, like the heart of San Francisco. A strangely shaped, airy space with hidden corners, big windows, a huge wood-fired oven and walls full of art, Zuni captured the city like few other spaces. And it reflected in the customers. From pre-opera suburban diners in their finery to young couples on dates, you saw every age, gender, color and persuasion. Almost all of them with smiles on their faces. Zuni is still that kind of place. I hope it remains that kind of place.

    Many chefs are known by their “signature dishes”, and they are something of a mixed blessing. Most chefs tire of making the same dish, no matter how good or how popular, every day. Judy Rodgers had many signature dishes. The roast chicken, burger, caesar salad, polenta and espresso granita are still standards of San Francisco dining to this day. Rodgers expressed frustration, at times, that she couldn’t take these dishes off the menu. But regardless of her feelings, the dishes were always perfectly executed. When we took the boys to Zuni a few years ago, the burger was just as good as it was when we first went. Rodgers was a pro.

    Ironically, when we moved out of the city and eventually came here to the “farm”, Rodgers became an even larger influence on our cooking through the Zuni Cafe Cookbook. To be honest, it is a dense, detailed cookbook. At times it’s a hard read. It is not entertainment or food porn. But the recipes truly work. And, more importantly, if you want to understand how flavors come together and compliment each other in a dish, then this is the cookbook you need. When we want to learn about a fresh, seasonal ingredient, we most often look to Alice Waters. When we actually cook it or pair it with another ingredient, we look to Judy Rodgers.

    A number of years ago we stopped cooking just by recipe, but by looking at ingredients, flavors and techniques. We jokingly say that we “graduated” and become cooks who can think, and experiment, on our own. Judy Rodgers was a big part of that, and we owe her our thanks.

    We also owe her our thanks for her recipes and techniques that we make here all the time. We pre-salt or “dry brine” our beef, pork and poultry- and it is still one of the most important techniques we use. Her asparagus and rice soup fills our bowls each spring, sage grilled cheese puts smiles on faces at cocktail parties. And Rodgers’ caesar salad is still the best, even if our attempts don’t come close to the original. It is a beautiful dish. A memorable dish.

    So thank you Judy Rodgers. Our prayers go to you and your family. Godspeed.