Father of Wine Country cuisine John Ash gets close to nature with 'Cooking Wild'
John Ash of Santa Rosa, known as the “Father of Wine Country Cuisine” and one of the region’s most renowned chefs, has always been a visionary, capturing the zeitgeist of his time while gazing presciently into the future.
When he first opened his namesake restaurant, John Ash & Company, in Montgomery Village in 1980, it was one of the first in Northern California to focus on local, seasonal ingredients and to create dishes that complemented the wines being made in the region. Now, more than 35 years later, nearly all restaurant chefs worth their salt aspire to meet that high standard.
As an international cooking teacher, Ash also educated a new generation of home cooks eager to eat more simply and more ethically, closer to the fresh flavors of the gardens and farms in their own back yards.
Now the award-winning cookbook author has released his fifth tome, “Cooking Wild” (Running Press, $35), which feeds into several hot food trends, from Heritage breeds and the Paleo diet to the wildly popular foraging fad, best exemplified by Danish superstar chef René Redzepi of Noma restaurant in Copenhagen.
It joins an impressive collection of previous books, all promoting the lessons of locavore eating to an even wider audience: “American Game Cooking” in 1991; “From the Earth to the Table” in 1995 (updated in 2007); “John Ash Cooking One-on-One” in 2004; and “Culinary Birds” in 2013.
For Ash, who grew up with his grandparents on an isolated mountain ranch in Colorado, foraging was not a fashionable pastime but a lifelong skill he developed out of necessity. In his new book, he elevates it into a lofty ambition that could help feed the world in the future.
“My grandmother taught me how to forage wild plants such as lamb’s-quarter, wild asparagus, purslane and huckleberries, and to catch trout with my hands,” Ash writes in the introduction to “Cooking Wild.” “It’s important today to identify and preserve wild foods, for they represent a biodiversity that can help us maintain our food supply and feed our rapidly growing population.”
Like his award-winning “Culinary Birds,” the new book was written in conjunction with James O. Fraioli and features Instagram-worthy photographs of raw ingredients and finished dishes. The cookbook covers spring treasures like fiddlehead ferns and ramps as well as the earthy bounty of porcini and black trumpet mushrooms in fall and winter.
All 150 inventive and seasonal recipes are made from uncultivated foods - many found as close as your local supermarket - and range from Grilled Asparagus with Pecorino and Prosciutto to Rockfish Cakes with Homemade Tartar Sauce.
“Seafood is the last of the truly wild organisms on earth,” said Ash, who has worked closely with Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch initiative to help consumers make environmentally sound, sustainable choices. “Already, 50 percent of our seafood is farmed. In a generation or two, truly wild seafood may be a luxury food.”
Many Wine Country backyards contain stinging nettles, whose prickly leaves harbor painful formic acid. Once cooked, they thankfully lose their sting and provide an array of nutrients, from iron and potassium to vitamins A and C.
“Choose young plants (less than knee high) when foraging, and be sure to protect yourself by wearing gloves, pants and long sleeves,” Ash advises. “Pick just the top four leaves.”
Wild arugula, a relative of commercially grown arugula, has a more peppery kick than its cultivated cousin and is native to Italy, where it has been foraged for centuries.
“To really appreciate its zingy flavor, I think it’s best eaten raw,” Ash said. “Toss it in a salad with salty prosciutto and sweet watermelon, or scatter it on top of pizza.”
Like many wild plants, the sweet, dainty stalks of wild asparagus can be found along small streams or irrigation ditches in the cool climate of early spring. Ash’s book includes a couple of recipes for the spring spears, including a salad and a soup.
Wild rhubarb, also known as pieplant, is easily spotted because it either has bright red stalks and deep green leaves, or green stalks that don’t turn red at all (the cultivated kind has pink or light red stalks).
“Wild rhubarb is one of the first plants of spring, and like spring greens, it is considered a blood thiner in folk wisdom,” Ash said. “The large triangular leaves of the rhubarb plant are toxic, so cut them off and discard them.”
The cookbook also includes recipes for wild meats such as venison and wild boar, as well as sustainable fish and shellfish such as farmed Manila clams and Pacific rockfish, which has been returned to sustainable levels thanks to an emergency fishing closure on the West Coast.