Cowboy menu wrangles up hearty beans, ribs and cornbread
The slow, creeping light of early autumn beckons us inward to the kitchen and the tantalizing aroma of a slow, moist braise over low heat, a process that boosts the flavor and melts the texture of tougher cuts of meat such as beef short ribs.
Throw some wood chips on the barbecue and grill up some buttery artichokes, and you’ve got a smoky, autumnal backdrop to a simple but satisfying fall feast. It’s California comfort food, harkening back to the pioneers and their open-fire cooking.
Petaluma chef Annie Simmons created a timeless “Cowboy Cuisine” menu for a recent class at Ramekins that drew folks far and wide with its simple but satisfying menu, rounded out with a spicy pot of beans, skillet cornbread and stonefruit cobbler bubbling in a cast-iron pan.
“This menu is great for fall and has a lot of variations,” Simmons told the class of 20-some people. “Artichokes are in season, but you could also do sweet potatoes, or you could even do late-harvest veggies on the grill.”
Simmons crafted the autumnal dinner as a rustic feast inspired by the classic Santa Maria BBQ of the Central Coast, but she centered it around some unctuous Barbecue Braised Beef Short Ribs rather than the traditional tri-tip.
“Braising is such a beautiful, fall technique,” she said. “The beautiful part is, once you put it in the oven, you’re done and you don’t have to check it.”
The Santa Maria Barbecue, a regional tradition rooted in Santa Barbara County, dates back to the mid-19th century and is considered part of California’s culinary heritage. The beef tri-tip - king of the California grill but the Sasquatch of meat cuts elsewhere - is seasoned with black pepper, salt and garlic before being grilled over red oak, also known as Coast Live oak.
“I was born in Monterey, and I have friends who grew up in Santa Maria,” Simmons said. “The Santa Maria barbecue is about the ranches and the cowboys.
In the class, Simmons gave a taste of the vaquero tradition while also providing a lesson in making your own BBQ rub, and correctly doing the searing of the ribs and the deglazing process before the slow braise.
“You can apply the braise technique to a lot of different proteins,” she said. “I often do a red wine braise with stock, salt and pepper, rosemary and garlic.”
Along with braising, the class also learned techniques for charring a pepper over a gas burner and how to trim an artichoke so you don’t get poked by its barbs while eating it,
“You steam, scoop out the choke, then grill them,” Simmons said. “At home, it’s best to throw wood on your coals for that smoky flavor.”
The cornbread is given a spicy twist with shards of jalapeño pepper and Cheddar cheese thrown in with the sour cream, milk and eggs.
“The cornbread holds together really nice, and it heats up nicely the next day,” Simmons said. “This recipe is great for leftovers. You can serve it with the bean stew .”
Made with Santa Maria Pinquinto beans from Rancho Gordo of Napa, the Cowboy Beans with Chorizo stew is a hearty, warming dish that Simmons dubbed Hangover Stew, since it tastes better the next day.
“It’s a delicious stew that’s really good with cold beer,’ she said. “You can go to the Rancho Gordo store in Napa. If you’re not a bean nerd, you will be.” (ranchogordo.com)
To spice up the feast, Simmons also included a Chilean Red Pepper Sauce made with tomatoes, charred bell pepper, onion, garlic and small, hot chiles.
“It’s like a glorified salsa,” she said. “It’s lightly blended and has a nice zip to it.”
Finally, for dessert, Simmons picked up some end-of-summer stonefruit - peaches and pluots (a cross between plums and apricots) - to bake into a few, easy cobblers.
“This recipe is also good with apples, figs and golden raisins,” she said. “You know it’s done when you have a beautiful, golden brown on top and bubbling filling around the edge.”
Los Angeles residents Sylvia Grotz and her husband signed up to take the class on their way to an extended vacation on the Mendocino Coast.
“We’re into cast-iron cooking,” Grotz said. “When we travel, we always like to find a cooking class because you learn about the area that way.”
“I like comfort food, and this fit the bill,” said Marcia Maihack of Sonoma. “I’m part Mexican, so I love anything with beans.”
“This class really speaks to people, especially the cast-iron cooking,” Simmons said. “I love serving in cast iron. It looks cool, and it keeps everything warm.”
“This is an easy and reliable braising technique and results in exceptionally fork-tender short ribs,” Simmons said. If you want to use pork shoulder, braise for 21/2 hours. For chicken, braise for 45 minutes to an hour. For a barbecue sauce, she suggests the Trader Joe’s Organic Brown Sugar Barbecue Sauce.