Tuesday, January 26, 2010

'Tis the season for comfort food

Last week, I spent the most lovely evening at a cooking class at Season's Catering in Ventura. I went prepared to don my favorite apron, roll up my sleeves, and get to chopping. But instead, I got to sit (which after a long day, was pretty sweet). We sipped wine, asked questions, and watched as owners Daisy Mastroianni and Gaby Moes walked us through a laundry list of recipes. And then (now this is the best part) we got to taste each one! It was like school meets gourmet dinner; I was happy as a clam, learning and eating at the same time.

The class I attended was called Back to Basics. What I loved about the class is that Daisy taught us a few basic recipes, and then showed us a number of ways to build off of them. And for most of the recipes, she explained how we could adapt them for the crockpot (the home cook's best friend). Daisy was fun, engaging, and relaxed in the kitchen; and there was an atmosphere of warmth and a sense of community amongst our group of 10 (most of whom started the class as strangers).

We learned how to roast a chicken, turn that chicken into stock, and then how to turn that stock into a delicous chicken noodle stew.

We learned how to make a basic marinara, and then used that marinara as a base for 3 other decadent pasta sauces. The basic marinara, which Daisy simmers for 4-6 hours on the stove, puts all jarred marinaras to shame- it is thick and sweet from reducing for so long (not from added sugar).

My favorite variation was the spicy tomato sauce - kicked up with crushed red pepper and pancetta, making for a sweet, spicy and unctious sauce. The fat from the pancetta made it purely divine. The vodka cream sauce was sweet from the addition of shallots, and good enough to drink. We had a salad of mixed greens topped with pistachios, dried cherries, gorgonzola, and a spicy vinaigrette. We sampled spiced pork chops with homemade apple sauce...a simple, easy meal and the ultimate comfort food.

Some interesting pointers I garnered from Daisy:
-When roasting a chicken, you can play around with the veggies and herbs, but always make sure to season with salt and pepper, and put onions both inside and around the chicken.
-You can tell the chicken is cooked through when the thigh pulls away from the breast.
-You don't have to tie the the chicken legs together before roasting (some people think it cooks better when left untied).
-When making chicken stock, don't add peppers because it will make the stock bitter.
-When making a vinaigrette, never use 'light' olive oil - it comes from the dredges of the barrel and as Daisy puts it, "It's light on taste." Always use extra virgin olive oil.
-When cooking thin-cut boneless pork chops, always pull them off the heat before you think it is done because it will continue to cook for a few minutes off the heat.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Winter food and wine news...

Ventura's very own Fresh and Easy is due to open soon. The building is complete...down to the landscaping and painted lines in the parking lot. The shelves are being stocked, jobs are being filled, and they are taking nominations for their $1,000 Good Neighbor grant. As part of their grand opening, the staff chooses one local nonprofit to receive this generous gift. Check out their website to learn more about how cool and green their stores are, and how reasonable their prices are.

Old Creek Ranch Winery just announced that all four wines that they entered in the SF Chronicle wine competition medaled! Here are the results...Ventura County should be proud:
  • Double Gold Medal: 2007 Sangiovese, White Hawk Vineyard, Santa Barbara County, now in release.
  • Double Gold Medal: 2007 Grenache, Vogelzang Vineyard, Santa Ynez Valley, will be released Friday February 12th.
  • Gold Medal: 2007 Petite Sirah, Branham Obsidian Vineyard, will be released first week on May.
  • Silver Medal: 2007 Syrah, Santa Barbara County, will be released Friday February 12th.
Rancho Ventavo Cellars has some fun, new events for 2010:
  • Thank Bacchus for First Fridays! On the first Friday of each month from 6:00 - 7:30pm they are offering delicious trios of Rancho Ventavo Cellars wines paired with small plates, begining the first Friday in February. Who's Bacchus? Well, Bacchus is Dionysus, or the Greek god of wine and intoxication, known as Bacchus to Romans.
  • Saturdays are Girls Just Wanna Have Wine Nights! on the last Saturday of each month from 6:00 - 7:30pm. Each month there will be a different "theme." In January the theme will be "largest, most outrageous hair while drinking wine."
We Olive introduced some new products this month: Blood Orange Balsamic Vinegar, House-Brand Dukkah, Golden Honey Mustard, Wasabi Sake Mustard, and a Sweet Balsamic Mustard.

They are also hosting a recipe contest. Interested? Enter a great recipe using one or more of their products in the following categories: : A Romantic Dinner for Two, A Heart Healthy Celebration and The Crowd Pleaser. They will select 3 winners, each of whom will receive a product of his/her choice from their store (except table linens). Submit your recipes by email or in the store before this Sunday, January 24th.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

2009: Most Memorable Moments at the Table

Sometimes I laugh with my friends that I'm a professional eater or that I'm eating my way through Ventura County. However you look at it, I definitely do a lot of eating. Recently I was thinking back over 2009 and some of my favorite things I ate during the course of the year. These were the most memorable:

The pomme frites at Savory Cafe in Ventura: brown and crisp, dusted with coarse sea salt and served with your choice of remoulade dipping sauce (basil, barbeque, or caramelized onion with roasted garlic). Hey, who doesn’t love their own tin bucket of fries sitting in a cone of crisp parchment paper? They're located at 419 East Main Street in Ventura.

Bodee's S'mores Cake: a graham cracker crust topped with molten chocolate cake and capped off with a toasted marshmallow. The crust was thick, buttery, the cake was warm and fudgy, and the marshmallow was crisp on the outside and bordering on liquid on the inside. Bodee's is located at 3304 Maricopa Highway in Ojai.

The bread pudding at My Florist. It comes baked and warm in a generous bowl (the size of a cereal bowl), and is crammed with bread straight from their bakery. It was creamy and sweet, with chunks of soft and tangy lemon rind, and topped with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream. My Florist is located at 76 Oak Street in Ventura.

Winning Hearts and Minds Cake - a recipe from Molly Wizenburg, author of A Homemade Life. The easiest cake I may ever have made (no mixer and an ingredient list of less than 10 items) and by far, the best I've ever eaten. Note: she calls for fancy butter, plain unsalted works just fine. Whats even better is that the cake tastes better if you make it in advance and freeze it. How sweet is that?

A Limosa. A play on the drink "mimosa." Instead of orange juice, this festive drink mixes champagne or Prosecco with Ventura Limoncello. The sweetness of the Limoncello balances out the dryness of the bubbly. It's lemony, fizzy, and refreshing.

Fresh crusty bread dipped in La Nogalera Walnut Oil. The nuts are roasted before being pressed, producing oil that rivals the best olive oil with its wow factor, yet has a distinct flavor of its own that will perk up even the sleepiest of taste buds. This delicious oil, which I refer to as liquid gold, can be found at Paradise Pantry in Ventura.

Moo Shu Pork at the Mandarin House. Built tableside, it tastes like a masterpiece. Four pancakes with a delectable filling made of pork, shredded cabbage, bamboo, and egg in a plum sauce. Mandarin House is located at 4020 East Main Street in Ventura (near the old Target and Bed, Bath, and Beyond).

And my favorite glass of wine was a 2004 Napa Valley Kimberly Cuvee at Bella Victorian Vineyard's Tasting Room in Camarillo. They had us taste this full-bodied award-winning red blend alongside blue cheese crumbles, so we could really grasp how certain foods make wine taste better and certain wines make food taste better. In the spirit of full disclosure, I do drink a lot of wine, so its pretty remarkable that this one stood out so. It was that good. Bella Victorian is located at 2135 Ventura Boulevard in Old Town Camarillo.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

More Main Course to go around

Once again, I've just had the most lovely lunch at one of Ventura's little hidden gems: Main Course California. In preparation for the launch of their happy hour and dinner service, they have just expanded their space, both the indoors and out, to make room for more tables. The place is still cuter than cute- with its watermelon inspired color scheme (Chef Main says she had a moment of style inspiration) of red walls, lime green accents, and glossy black furniture. The menu is still an awe-inspiring array of local freshness, the tomato soup is still the best I've ever tasted, and the flavors just mind-blowing.

What's new is the Happy Hour from 4-6pm, Monday through Saturday where all of their wines are half off. And starting today, they will be open for dinner from 5-8pm, Wednesday through Saturday. Oh, and now they are also open for lunch on Saturdays and selling some of their goodies at the Ojai Farmers Market on Sundays.

If you're not familiar with Main Course, what you need to know is that head Chef Rachel Main works her tail off sourcing the freshest of ingredients from local farmers and then working with them to really let the ingredients shine. She also uses only grass fed beef and free range chicken, and you can taste the difference when you try her burger with red onion marmalade or chicken sandwich with roasted peppers, onion sprouts, and chimichurri sauce. Her food is simple yet divine, and for me, eating at Main Course often borders on a religious experience. It was the first time I went (see the peanut chicken salad above), and has been ever since.

Some of the treats on their new dinner menu for this week (the menu changes frequently based on whats in season) include chorizo stuffed bacon wrapped dates, an herb risotto with curry roasted cauliflower, spinach, and meyer lemon confit, and a Watkins Ranch oxtail stew with parmesan polenta. You can finish your meal off with a white chocolate mascarpone mousse or champagne flourless cake with coconut whipped cream. If I could offer one piece of advice to everyone who lives in Ventura it is this: get in your car or get on your bike and make your way to Main Course California...you won't regret it.