Cooking California Style
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.
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 www.trafalgar.com/can for Trafalgar’s At Leisure San Francisco & Wine Country Delights itineraries, or see your travel agent. Ramekins: www.ramekins.com For Vivian Vassos’ Trafalgar experience in Italy, read Of Princes and Peasants.
Shrimp Cakes with Salsa Cruda
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
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
Frisée Salad with Bacon and Pecan Crusted Warm Goat Cheese
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.
Butterflied Chicken Breast Stuffed with Olives, Pesto and Pine Nuts
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
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.
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
Individual New York Style Cheesecakes
2 ½ lbs cream cheese, softened to room temperature
1 ¾ cups sugar
½ cup heavy cream
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.