Cooking California Style

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Hungry for culinary cred, Vivian Vassos makes a foodie stopover with Trafalgar guided vacations at Ramekins Sonoma Valley Culinary School.


I’m the dessert. No, not literally but figuratively, I suppose. I’ve been assigned to making the finale, with a pair of guys, yes, I said guys, who probably know their way better around a barbecue (one’s an Aussie; the other’s South African) than a cake pan. We’re in Northern California, at Ramekins Sonoma Valley Culinary School, and we’re taking a cooking class as part of a guided holiday experience with Trafalgar and about a score of other intrepid journos looking to learn a trick or two in the kitchen.

Being the only female in the dessert group, I promptly suggest the boys do the heavy lifting – using the kitchen’s state-of-the-art equipment, of course: mixing, beating, pouring, etc. (okay, I do some of the measuring and the pouring, too) while I ensure the visual beauty, or “plating” as the chefs say, of the final course. It’s New York Cheesecake, with Cherry Merlot Sauce (we’re in California wine country after all, naturally there’s Merlot in it!). Unfortunately for me, I have an allergy to stone fruit, which includes said cherries, so I’ll be steering clear of the fruit (but not the Merlot), and getting my own special cheesy sweet.

Now, cheesecake is beyond a perennial favourite; New York style has its fanatic following so entrenched in the dessert’s perfect balance of piquancy and sweetness that it’s known pretty much the world over. We can’t muck this up, no, absolutely not.

Our culinary guide is a 50-something bespectacled brunette, sporting a long bob that would make Vidal Sassoon proud. She works like a kinder, gentler major-domo, calling out instructions but, at the same time, leaving us alone long enough for us to do the job – and to stare at each other wondering what to do next. But just in time to harness our natural journalistic curiosity, she’s back, with new marching orders: line the pans with graham cracker crumb crusts and fill with cheesy ooey gooey good stuff.

Eventually, we’ve got two muffin pans filled with individual cheesecakes, cupcake-sized servings that are not too big, not too small but just right, to finish off a the four-course extravaganza that the whole group’s been split up to create. Laughter bubbles up from the chicken grill station, salad rippers rip into each other for slacker technique, and someone’s taken a bite out of an apple that’s meant for the hors d’oeuvres; a good time being had by all. Appetizers include shrimp cakes with salsa cruda and crispy wonton cups with apple and brie; the first course is a frisée salad with bacon (that my grill-friendly, multi-tasking Aussie dessert mate has had a hand in frying up) and pecan-crusted goat cheese; and the entrée is butterflied breast of chicken, stuffed with pecorino and pine nuts, served with buttermilk mashed potatoes (recipes to follow).

Bringing people together through these types of team experiences while travelling is something of a specialty for the folks at Trafalgar. “See the world from the inside” is the company’s tag line, and here tonight, we were seeing the world from the inside of a chef’s high-end kitchen. Yet, there’s no Marco Pierre White or Gordon Ramsay barking their expletive-filled displeasure in sight. Just a group of “like-minded people from around the world,” says Gavin Tollman, Trafalgar’s global chief executive officer, cooking, laughing and listening to their culinary instructors in the goal of a having a great meal and sharing it over an even better glass of wine. “It’s the dynamic of a group. Friends are made. It’s the power of group travel,” he adds.

Powerful, yes. Dinner was delicious, but the company was divine.

Go to for Trafalgar’s At Leisure San Francisco & Wine Country Delights itineraries, or see your travel agent. Ramekins: For Vivian Vassos’ Trafalgar experience in Italy, read Of Princes and Peasants.



Shrimp Cakes with Salsa Cruda

Serves 6-8


1 lb small white shrimp

¼ cup dry white wine

1 large egg, beaten lightly

1 cup panko or other dry homemade breadcrumbs

3 tbsp mayonnaise

½ tsp dry mustard

2 tbsp minced fresh parsley

2 tbsp scallions

2 tsp white-wine Worcestershire sauce

½ tsp Tabasco

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Vegetable oil


Separate the shrimp into two equal portions. Chop half of it coarsely. Put the other half in the bowl of a food processor and purée. In a large sauté pan over medium-high heat, combine the chopped shrimp and wine and cook for 1 minute. The shrimp will still be translucent and not quite done. Drain the shrimp, reserving any liquid.

Return the shrimp liquid to the pan and, over medium heat, reduce until almost a syrup. In a bowl, combine the egg, breadcrumbs, mayonnaise, mustard, parsley, scallions, Worcestershire and Tabasco. Mix in the shrimp and the reduced liquid. Form into small cakes.

In a large sauté pan, heat the vegetable oil and sauté the cakes until lightly brown on both sides. Remove and drain on paper towels.


Salsa Cruda

1 lb ripe tomatoes, seeded and diced

1/3 cup diced red onion

1 tsp seeded and minced Serrano or jalapeno chile

2 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro

Drops of lemon or lime juice

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper


In a medium bow, combine all the ingredients and allow the flavours to blend.



Crispy Wontons filled with Apple-Brie

Makes 24


½ pkg square wonton wrappers

3 tbsp olive oil

2 tbsp apple cider vinegar

1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil

½ tsp honey

Salt and pepper

1 Granny Smith Apple, peeled, cored and finely diced

2 tbsp finely chopped red bell pepper

2 tbsp finely chopped red onion

2 tbsp minced fresh cilantro

½ lb ripe Brie, finely diced

You will need a mini-muffin baking tin.

For the wonton cups, cut ½ inch off two sides of the wontons, to make them fit the mini muffin tins. Place one wonton in each muffin tin, pressing it down into the tin. Brush lightly with olive oil. Bake in 350 F oven until golden, about 6 minutes. Let cool.

In a medium bowl, stir together the vinegar, oil, honey, a pinch of salt and pepper. Add the apple, pepper, onion and cilantro. Toss well and adjust seasoning.

Place a scant teaspoon of apple salsa in each wonton cup. Top with a dice of brie. Place in the oven for 3 minutes or until cheese is melted. Serve warm.



Frisée Salad with Bacon and Pecan Crusted Warm Goat Cheese

Serves 8

1 ½ lbs frisée (French curly endive)

¾ lb thick-cut bacon slices

2 tbsp chopped shallot

6 tbsp red-wine vinegar

2 tsp Dijon mustard

Salt and pepper to taste

¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil


Tear frisée into small pieces and set aside in a large bowl.

In a non-stick skillet, cook bacon over moderate heat until crisp. Set aside on paper towels to drain. Chop coarsely when cool.

In a small skillet, comboine 2 tsp of olive oil and shallot; cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Transfer to a bowl. Add the red wine vinegar, the Dijon mustard, a large pinch of salt and whisk until well combined. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil, whisking the whole time. Season to taste with salt and pepper.


Goat Cheese

12 oz goat cheese

½ cup pecans, toasted and finely chopped


Form 8 disks out of the goat cheese and coat evenly with the pecans. Place on a parchment paper covered sheet pan and bake in 375 F oven for about 5 minutes just prior to serving.

To serve, toss the bacon with the frisée and coat with the dressing. Divide among 8 plates and top each salad with a goat cheese disk.



Butterflied Chicken Breast Stuffed with Olives, Pesto and Pine Nuts

Serves 8

Preheat oven to 375 degrees or preheat grill.


8 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves

8 bay leaves

8  ½-inch wide strips of lemon zest

Olive oil for cooking


Butterfly breasts and pound between two sheets of plastic wrap or parchment using a flat surface meat pounder or rolling pin. Pound to ¼ inch thickness. Place on sheet pan, cover and refrigerate while you make the pesto and the olive filling.


Pesto (makes about 3 cups):

2 cups, packed basil leaves

6 cloves roasted garlic

½ cup toasted pine nuts

½ cup grated Parmesan cheese

½ tsp red pepper flakes

½ cup olive oil

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper


Blanch the basil in small pot of boiling salted water for 1 minute, emove and immediately plunge into an ice bath to stop the cooking and retain the colour. Drain the basil and squeeze out any excess moisture.

Make the pesto by combining the basil, roasted garlic, pine nuts, cheese and red pepper flakes in a blender or food processor. Blend until the pine nuts are coarsely chopped. Slowly add the olive oil to create a spreadable paste. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Place in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap directly onto the pesto surface to keep pesto from oxidizing by being exposed to the air. Refrigerate until ready to use.


Olive-Breadcrumb Filling

1 ½ cups green olives (preferably picholine), pitted and coarsely chopped

2 cups of plain bread crumbs

½ cup chopped parsley leaves

2 tbsp lemon zest

½ cup grated Pecorino cheese

2 eggs, lightly beaten

Olive oil to moisten

1 tsp kosher salt

½ tsp freshly ground black pepper


In a food processor, combine the olives, bread crumbs, parsley, lemon zest and cheese. Mix in the 2 beaten eggs. Add olive oil as needed to moisten the mixture. Add salt and pepper.

Bring chicken to room temperature. Cover with the olive-bread crumb filling. Starting with a long side, roll up the chicken, then close securely with two short bamboo skewers. Season with salt and pepper. Stack one slice of lemon zest on top of a bay leaf and tuck into each roll.


For stovetop and oven cooking:

Heal olive oil in a large, heavy bottom skillet over moderately high heat until it just begins to smoke, then cook chicken rolls, turning until well browned on the outside, about 4 – 5 minutes. Place skillet in a 375 F oven and finish cooking, approximately 15 minutes.

Or for grilling:

Lightly brush chicken breasts with olive oil and grill on medium high heat for approximately 20 minutes.


Remove from heat and let chicken rest for 5 minutes, then remove skewers. Remove the zest and bay leaf. Cut each breast in half diagonally and stand on serving plate with diagonal ends up.


Drizzle base with pesto, sprinkle with pine nuts and chopped parsley and serve.



Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes

Serves 6 – 8

3 lb russet potatoes, peeled and cut into large pieces

4 oz unsalted butter (1 stick)

1/3 cup heavy cream

2/3 cup buttermilk

Kosher salt and freshly ground white pepper

Freshly ground nutmeg


Place the potatoes in a large pan of boiling water and cook until knife tender when pierced, about 20 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and drain the water. Cover the potatoes with a towel and leave the potatoes to steam for a further 5 minutes.

While the potatoes are boiling, melt the butter, cream and buttermilk together in a small saucepan over a low heat.

“Rice” the cooked potatoes into a warmed bowl with a potato ricer or mash in the pan with a potato masher. Using a wooden spoon beat the warm buttermilk mixture into the potatoes, until thoroughly mixed. Season to taste with the salt and pepper and freshly grated nutmeg. Serve immediately.



Individual New York Style Cheesecakes

Yields 24



2 ½ lbs cream cheese, softened to room temperature

1 ¾ cups sugar

½ cup heavy cream

5 eggs

2 egg yolks

3 tbsp all purpose flour, sifted

Finely grated zest of 2 lemons

1 tsp vanilla extract



1 ½ cups (5 oz.) finely ground graham crackers or vanilla wafers

5 tbsp unsalted butter, melted

1/3 cup sugar

1/8 tsp salt


Combine cookies, melted butter, sugar and salt in processor, pulsing until crumbled. Press 1 ½ tbsp of cookie mixture into bottom of silicone muffin pans. Bake on a sheet in 350 F oven for 8 minutes.


For the cakes, combine cream cheese and sugar in mixer using paddle attachment. Beat on lowest speed possible until smooth. Add heavy cream to cream cheese mixture, on low speed. Add eggs, then flour, zest and vanilla, scraping down bowl often.

Strain batter through a double mesh basket strainer. Fill pre-baked muffin pans with batter. Set muffin pans on half sheet in 350 degree oven, adding ¾ inch water to sheet pan. Bake 20 to 25 minutes or until tops are set. Let cool slightly, then refrigerate overnight (or quick chill in freezer for 1 – 2 hours). To remove cheesecakes, set muffin pans in hot water for 1 minute, then push out from bottom.


Serve cold or at room temperature, spooning cherry merlot (recipe below) over top.


Merlot Cherry Sauce

Yields 2 ½ cups

2 cups merlot

1 cup sugar

1 cinnamon stick

2 whole cloves

¼ cup raisins or currants

1 ½ tsp lemon juice

Combine all ingredients and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for 10 minutes.


1 ½ tbsp cornstarch

1 tbsp water

Stir cornstarch and water together, then whisk into the wine mixture. Cook sauce, stirring constantly, until clear and thickened, approximately 5 minutes


2/3 cup dried cherries, roughly chopped

Strain mixture over dried cherries. Serve warm or at room temperature.