Sonoma County chefs share their favorite pantry items for easy family-friendly fall dinners

Even though the temperatures are still toasty in the North Bay, our internal clocks know autumn is just one week away.

The season of grilling outdoors and serving fresh tomatoes and peaches from the garden has begun to overlap like a Venn diagram with the low-and-slow season of braised meats, earthy root vegetables and late-season fruits like figs.

In the kitchen, we’re starting to develop an appetite for fall flavors as we move indoors and rediscover the comforting aromas of slow cookers and Dutch ovens, which can magically unlock the tenderness of a pork shoulder or the complexity of mushrooms.

One of my favorite fall dinners is something I started making last year with a jar of Korean kimchi from my fridge. It’s a braised dish, built in the slow cooker with a simple base of sauteed yellow onion, green cabbage and some kimchi for heat.

On top of the veggies, I place a pound and a half of marinated boneless beef ribs, which are also Korean-inspired. I buy the “Bool Kogi” ribs from Trader Joe’s; they’re meant for grilling but are equally delicious braised. You can smell the Asian flavors all the way out to the street as they cook all day on low.

To celebrate the shoulder season of early fall, we asked a handful of local chefs and caterers to choose a few favorite pantry items and provide an easy recipe that they enjoy making from them. Their pantries include whole grains, seasonings such as Green Hatch Chile Spice, dressing components like black sesame oil, pulses such as farro and warming spices.

Many of these chefs and caterers have kids at home, some of whom tend to be picky eaters. So once they find something they like, they keep returning to it.

For caterer Gerard Nebesky of Gerard’s Paella, farro is his go-to staple for his 9-year-old daughter, Olive. One of his dependable dinners is Fall Farro, which he serves with grilled meat and roasted vegetables.

“It’s good for you, for starters,” he said. “It’s a whole grain. ...For a finicky eater, it works really well because it has protein and fiber.”

Farro is “the Chilean sea bass” of grains, he said, because it’s so difficult to mess up and makes you look like a rock-star chef, no matter what.

“The mouthfeel and ability of farro to absorb flavors is your best friend in the pantry,” he said. “You could also wilt some greens, like collards, in the pot before cooking the farro.”

Here are some of the family-friendly recipes Nebesky and the other chefs came up with:

The following three recipes are from Gerard Nebesky of Gerard’s Paella Catering.

On the day of cooking, Nebesky serves the Fall Farro with meat and veggies, such as the Grilled Harissa-Spiced Lamb Loin Chops and Roasted Root Vegetables, below. The next day, he enjoys the farro dish for breakfast or lunch with avocado or a fried egg and sriracha.

The spice blends in the recipes below (Tan-Tan, Ras el Hanout, Harissa Spice Mix and Madras Curry Powder) are available from Savory Spice Shop in Santa Rosa and Sonoma or online (

Fall Farro

Makes 4 to 6 servings

2 cups farro

1 tablespoon Better than Bouillon Roasted Chicken Base

5 to 6 slices dried porcini mushrooms or other dried mushrooms

1 teaspoon Tan-Tan Moroccan Seasoning

1 teaspoon Ras el Hanout

Salt and pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon butter, to finish

Rinse farro once and measure it into a medium-large pot or rice cooker. Add 6 cups water, then add the dried mushrooms, the Better Than Bouillon, the Tan-Tan Moroccan Seasoning, the Ras el Hanout, salt and pepper and olive oil.

Bring the water to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. (If using a rice cooker, set on the white rice setting.)

Once finished, add 1 tablespoon butter and fluff with a fork.

Loin chops, crosswise slices from the loin roast, are the most tender and most expensive of the various lamb chops. They are easy to identify because of the “T-bone” in the chop.

Grilled Harissa-Spiced Lamb Loin Chops

Makes 4 to 6 servings

8 lamb loin chops

Salt and pepper

1 teaspoon Harissa Spice Mix

1 teaspoon Madras Curry Powder

Remove the lamb loin chops from the fridge and bring to room temperature.

In a metal bowl, season the chops with a little salt and pepper, the Harissa Spice Mix and the Madras Curry Powder.

Grill the chops on a regular barbecue, over high heat, or indoors on a cast-iron grill pan over high heat, about four minutes per side, until medium-rare. Let rest for 10 minutes, covered in foil.

Serve with the Fall Farro, above, and Roasted Vegetables, below.

For this recipe, make sure to cut the carrots, potatoes and beets in small enough pieces so they will roast in about 20 minutes.

Roasted Root Vegetables

Serves 4 to 6

2 large carrots, peeled and cut into ¾-inch pieces

8 little red potatoes, cut into ¾-inch pieces

1 large onion, peeled and cut into ¾-inch chunks

12 cloves garlic, peeled

4 golden beets, cut into ¾-inch chunks

4 red beets, cut into ¾-inch chunks

1 head broccoli, cut into florets

Olive oil

Salt and pepper

1 tablespoon Tan-Tan Moroccan Seasoning

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Toss all the vegetables except the broccoli in a metal bowl with the olive oil, salt, pepper and Tan-Tan Moroccan Seasoning and mix well, then place flat on a sheet pan.

Add the broccoli to the leftover spices and olive oil in the bowl and reserve until the final 5 minutes of cooking.

Roast root vegetables for about 20 minutes, then add the broccoli and roast until done, about 5 more minutes.

This recipe is from Perry Hoffman, chef/partner of the Boonville Hotel in Boonville, who chose a good-quality sesame oil as his favorite pantry item. He uses it on everything he cooks at home and especially likes to drizzle it on fall vegetables.

“I use a really good one introduced to me from Terra restaurant ex-chef de cuisine Greg Dunmore, who now owns a wonderful company called the Japanese Pantry,” he said. “It’s a treasure chest of pantry goodies” (

Delicata Squash Salad with Mint, Lime and Golden Sesame Oil

Makes 4 servings

1-2 delicata squash, cut in half lengthwise

2 tablespoons of good sesame oil, such as the Golden Sesame Oil from Japanese Pantry

1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

Handful of arugula

1-2 limes, juiced and zested with a microplane

For squash: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut the squash in half lengthwise, scrape out seeds and cut into ½-inch crescents. Toss with a little olive oil and salt. Roast for about 25 minutes or until cooked and slightly brown and soft inside. Let cool slightly.

For salad: Add all ingredients into a mixing bowl and toss gently. Serve chilled or while the squash is still a little warm.

This recipe is from Chris Greenwald of Bay Laurel Culinary, who runs the Petaluma catering company with his wife, Ciara.

“One of our favorite lesser-known pantry spices is Hatch Green Chile Powder,” Greenwald said. “We source ours from Savory Spice Shop in Santa Rosa.”

The chile powder is made from dehydrated New Mexican Hatch green chiles, which have a short growing season, from about August to early September. The Hatch Valley, considered to be the Napa Valley of chile growing regions, consists of terroir-specific, fertile volcanic soil that contributes to the flavor of the chiles.

“We discovered the chile powder on a trip to New Mexico a few years ago, and we became completely hooked,” Greenwald said. “It has a totally different flavor profile than red chile powders — it is bright, flavorful and mildly spicy. Our favorite way to use it is in our Hatch Green Chile Pork.”

At their catering and to-go kitchen, the couple makes the pork stew, freezes it in small batches and uses it in everything from breakfast burritos to quesadillas and enchiladas. It’s also perfect on its own, topped with minced white onion.

They offer the Hatch Green Chile Pork for sale, frozen by the pint, if you want to try to the flavor before investing in the spice to make it (

BLC Hatch Green Chile Stew

Makes 1 quart

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 pound ground pork

Salt, to taste

1 white onion, minced

3 garlic cloves, minced

¼ cup flour

1 cup chicken stock

2 Hatch green chiles (can substitute Anaheim), fire roasted, peeled, seeded and minced

2 tablespoons Hatch Green Chile Powder

1 teaspoon white pepper

3 tablespoons chopped cilantro (optional)

Heat oil in a saute pan. Add pork and brown. Salt lightly. Add onion and continue browning meat. Add garlic and another pinch of salt. Add flour and mix for 2 minutes, then add chicken stock and chiles. Add chile powder and pepper. Simmer 20 minutes. Finish by tasting for salt. Mix in cilantro, if using.

The following two recipes are from Lynmar Estate Winery Chef David Frakes, who chose tortillas as his pantry item. Frakes and his wife have two children: Alexander, 8, and Adalynn, 5.

“I should cook more often, but when I do, it’s usually something like this quesadilla or wrap,” Frakes said. “I like using the soft flour tortillas. ... That way it’s not quite as crunchy.”

Fig, Brie, Caramelized Onion and Arugula Quesadilla

Serves 4 as an appetizer or 2 as a dinner

1 large yellow onion, peeled and cut into ⅛-inch julienne

1 tablespoon butter

½ teaspoon thyme, to cook with onions (optional)

4 10-inch to 12-inch tortillas (preferably soft flour, but corn will also work)

12-16 dried Black Mission figs (or Calmyrna), re-constituted in enough port or red wine to cover them, or 6 to 10 fresh figs

8 ounces Brie, or other melting cheese like chevre or buratta

2 large handfuls arugula

5 tablespoons butter

Salt and fresh-cracked black pepper, to taste

Salad greens, for optional garnish

Avocado, for optional garnish

Aged balsamic vinegar, the older the better (optional)

Cook onion in 1 tablespoon butter (and thyme, if you want) over medium heat until dark golden-brown, about 20 minutes, stirring often. Season with salt.

Bring port or wine to a boil and pour over dried figs in a small bowl. Cover and let sit for 10 minutes, then slice into rings. Reduce wine to a syrup and cool (to drizzle over tortillas before final assembly).

Building one quesadilla at a time, place two tortillas on a flat surface or cutting board. Spread half the onion mixture onto one tortilla, completely covering. Thinly slice the Brie and distribute half evenly over onions. Sprinkle half the rehydrated (or fresh) figs over the Brie, then top with one handful of arugula. Cover with other tortilla. Press firmly to compress ingredients.

Using a cast iron skillet or Teflon-coated pan, add 2 tablespoon butter per quesadilla (1 tablespoon per side). Cook for about 4-5 minutes per side over medium-high heat.

Cut into desired slices and serve immediately with salad greens, avocado and a drizzle of the port/wine reduction or the balsamic vinegar, if you used fresh figs.

Mushroom, Spinach and Gruyère Wrap

Makes 1 serving

1 pound maitake (or chanterelle) mushrooms, chopped into bite-size pieces

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Salt and fresh-cracked black pepper, to taste

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 quart spinach, packed

2 teaspoons finely minced garlic

1 large flour tortilla (or lavash)

2-3 ounces Gruyère (grated or sliced very thinly)

Saute mushrooms in butter and olive oil over high heat until golden brown and softened. Season with salt and fresh-cracked pepper. Squeeze dry.

Saute the garlic and spinach in a little olive oil until wilted. Season with salt and fresh-cracked pepper. Squeeze and discard excess juice.

Place tortilla on a flat surface or cutting board and start by evenly distributing the cheese.

Sprinkle mushrooms and spinach over the cheese, then roll into a tight wrap.

Sear on two sides in pan to brown and crisp the tortilla, or you can grill it on both sides to warm it through. Slice into desired portions and serve.

This nutritious recipe is from the “Mom-a-licious” cookbook by Domenica Catelli, chef and owner of Catelli’s in Geyserville, who chose lentils as her favorite fall pantry item.

“Don’t be intimidated if you’ve never cooked with lentils,” she said. “These tiny legumes are full of flavor, are nutrient dense and cook in just 15 minutes. Find them in the bulk section or in the aisle where you find rice and beans.”

This soup is gluten-free and, if you make it with vegetable broth, it is vegan as well.

Lunchtime Lentil Soup

Serves 6 to 8

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 medium yellow or white onion, minced

Handful cilantro, minced

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon ground cumin

3 teaspoons mild curry powder

8 cups chicken or vegetable broth

2 ¼ cups dried red lentils

1 14.5-ounce can crushed tomatoes

2 carrots, peeled and minced

2 stalks celery, minced

Lemon (optional)

Heat olive oil in the bottom of a large pot. Add onion and saute for 2 minutes.

Add garlic, cilantro and spices and cook a few more minutes.

Add lentils, tomatoes and broth and bring to a boil.

Reduce to a simmer and cook for about 15 minutes.

Finish with celery and carrot for crunch, plus a squeeze of lemon.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or On Twitter @dianepete56

Diane Peterson

Features, The Press Democrat

I’m interested in the home kitchen, from sheet-pan suppers to the latest food trends. Food encompasses the world, its many cultures, languages and history. It is both essential and sensual. I also have my fingers on the pulse of classical music in Sonoma County, from student mariachi bands to jazz crossover and symphonic sounds. It’s all a rich gumbo, redolent of the many cultures that make up our country and the world.

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