Sonoma County cooks featured in 'America the Great Cookbook'
American cuisine has been enjoying its moment in the sun recently as our relatively young country reaps the benefits of the revolution that started more than 45 years ago in the Bay Area when “eat local” maven Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse.
Last year, New York chef Mario Batali published a “Big American Cookbook” as a tribute to his favorite regional dishes, from San Diego Fish Tacos to Boston Cream Pie.
This year, Washington Post Food and Dining Editor Joe Yonan has upped the ante, collecting recipes from 100 food personalities across the country for “America the Great Cookbook: The Food We Make for the People We Love from 100 of Our Finest Chefs and Food Heroes.” (Welden Owen, $40)
This cookbook, ideal for the foodie on your gift list, paints a broad picture of the country’s palate, providing profiles and photos of prominent chefs like José Andrés of minibar in Washington, D.C., and Nancy Silverton of Osteria Mozza in L.A. as well as food writers such as Francis Lam of New York and Nik Sharma of San Francisco.
The do-good cookbook, which raises funds for the Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign, wraps its arms around the melting pot of the country and strives to answer the question, “What is American food?” The answer is often a bit of a paradox.
“American food is native food, and it is immigrant food,” the author states in the introduction. “It is food cooked in a spirit of openness, experimentation and reinvention, but often with a deep attachment to tradition.”
The recipes he presents - from a Santa Fe bean stew to a sweet potato taco from an L.A. food truck, from a hamburger grilled at a Midwest drive-in to a snickerdoodle dusted with matcha in Chicago - are both familiar in their simplicity and fresh in their inspiration. Just like the people who inhabit every nook and cranny of the country.
Among the leading food heroes chosen byYonan for profiles are several Wine Country pioneers at the forefront of their craft, including founder Jennifer Bice of Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery in Sebastopol and Amelia Ceja, president of Ceja Vineyards in the Carneros region of Napa and Sonoma.
The book includes a photo of Ceja with her daughter Dahlia at their Sonoma vineyard, along with recipes for her traditional Chilaquiles dish with eggs and avocado and her Creamy Coconut Old-Fashioned Oats with fresh berries, dates and nuts.
“The beauty of American cuisine is that it is a fusion of foods from all over the world,” Ceja said in a phone interview. “I love this book because it is a glimpse of how we eat in this country at this moment.”
Ceja learned to cook while growing up in Las Flores, an idyllic village in the highlands of Jalisco where her grandparents had a farm.
“My grandfather grew legumes and corn and squash, and my grandmother had an amazing organic garden in our back yard, and they raised chickens, hogs, cows, sheep, goats, turkeys,” she said. “Basically we didn’t have to buy anything.”
When she arrived in the U.S. in 1967 to join her father working in Napa Valley, Amelia missed her family back home but missed the food of her childhood even more. After all, this was the late 1960s, when American cuisine was embracing the convenience of processed food.
Yohan, who is a long-time fan of the Ceja family’s wine, approached Amelia about being in the cookbook because he had once tasted her chilaquiles and was hooked.
“My recipe is pretty fantastic,” she said. “It’s a dish that evolved from leftovers from the day before, like the tortillas, salsas, vegetables and protein … it’s not just for breakfast. I love it all day, every day.”
When the cookbook team told her they wanted to photograph her at sunrise, Ceja decided to also make everyone a hearty bowl of organic, old-fashioned oatmeal with coconut.
“I wanted them to have something warm and hearty, because it was winter and really, really cold,” she said. “The team liked it so much, they said ‘This has to be in the book.’”? In addition to Ceja, the book profiles 99 other fanatical chefs including fellow immigrants such as Charles Phan of The Slanted Door in San Francisco and Lebanese food blogger Amanda Saab of New Boston, Michigan.
“The beauty of American cuisine is that it is a fusion from foods from all over the world,” Ceja said. “Especially now, we need to showcase (that) our country’s strength is due to its diversity,”
This has been a banner year for Amelia Ceja, who was also included in a new cookbook, “Napa Valley Entertaining,” by Blakesley Chappelet.
“It’s a cookbook of Napa Valley vintners, farmers and restaurateurs, and we are profiled in it,” she said. “Eventually I'm going to publish my own recipe book inspired by my village … that is on my to-do list for 2018.”