Subscribe

These Wine Country women changed the way we eat

There are three women who changed the way we think about food here in Northern California’s wine country. Many have not heard of them, but we owe them so much.

Two of them, M.F.K. Fisher and Paula Wolfert, spent a big part of their lives in California wine country. The third, Madeleine Kamman, was here for a shorter time but changed the art of cooking for a generation of professional chefs.

Fisher has influenced today’s finest chefs, culinary writers and legions of rabid readers and eaters. Her career began in the 1930s and spanned decades, her intoxicating prose blending musings on food, love, sex and the pleasures of eating well and reveling in the senses.

Brooklyn native Wolfert moved to Morocco in 1959 and immediately fell in love with its markets, clay-pot cooking and the exotic cities of Marrakesh and Tangier. Her two-year stint in the North African country inspired her to write her first cookbook, “Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco” (HarperCollins, 1973).

Since then, she has written more cookbooks and countless articles for Food & Wine magazine and others. She has won many awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018 from the James Beard Foundation.

In her most recent cookbook, “The Food of Morocco” (Ecco, 2009), the culinary explorer not only updated her first book but vastly built upon it, adding fresh recipes, a source guide, a chapter on cooking essentials and sumptuous photography.

Wolfert’s move with her husband, novelist William Bayer, from the East Coast to the West and eventually to the small town of Sonoma in 1998, brought her full circle, back to the life she lived in Tangier, where she was able mingle with like-minded writers and chefs while enjoying the warmth and light of the Mediterranean climate.

From 1990-2000, Kamman was the co-founder, sole instructor and curriculum and course director of The School for American Chefs at Beringer Vineyards in St. Helena, teaching professional chefs with 2 to 15 years of experience.

As described by one student, she was “short tempered, demanding ... and (had an) intolerance for mediocrity.” To be able to attend was a culinary coup and a dream for many of us.

M.F.K. Fisher, culinary Grande Dame

Anne Zimmerman’s biography of Fisher, “An Extravagant Hunger: The Passionate Years of M.F.K. Fisher” (Counterpoint, 2011), describes her as America's preeminent food writer and culinary Grande Dame.

She wrote hundreds of stories for The New Yorker as well as 15 books of essays and reminiscences. She produced the enduring English translation of Brillat-Savarin’s book “The Physiology of Taste,” as well as a novel, a screenplay, a book for children and dozens of travelogues.

Fisher also had an appetite for combining travel with food and writing. She lived out the last 22 years of her life in a Glen Ellen cottage known as Last House, where she was inspired to write, cook and entertain for friends such as James Beard, Julia Child and Maya Angelou.

She died in 1992 at age 84 at her beloved Last House, now part of the Bouverie Preserve of Audubon Canyon Ranch, which is in the process of restoring the landmark Sonoma Valley home back to the way it was when she lived there.

Glen Ellen resident M.F.K. Fisher in her Glen Ellen home circa 1980. (Jeff Celia / Press Democrat file, 1981)
Glen Ellen resident M.F.K. Fisher in her Glen Ellen home circa 1980. (Jeff Celia / Press Democrat file, 1981)

In an interview in 1990, Fisher said writing about food “caused serious writers and critics to dismiss me for many, many years. It was woman’s stuff, a trifle.”

But she was undeterred. In 1943 she wrote in her book, “The Gastronomical Me,” “People ask me: ‘Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do?’ They ask it accusingly, as if I were somehow gross, unfaithful to the honor of my craft.

“The easiest answer is to say that, like most humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it … and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied … and it is all one..

“There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk. And that is my answer, when people ask me: Why do you write about hunger, and not wars and love.”

I had a special relationship with Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher. I first met her when she was in her late 60s or early 70s. She never revealed to me her exact age. The following is an unforgettable memory of Fisher.

M.F.K. Fisher’s warm sandwich

This is more a remembrance than a recipe. I had the pleasure of knowing and often visiting Fisher at her house in Glen Ellen. We had a “Tuesdays with Morrie” kind of relationship long before that wonderful book was written. I think that more than any other writer, she helped me understand how food was a touchstone to life in general. She had a voracious curiosity in all kinds of subjects, and I loved talking with her.

Back to the sandwich. When I visited Mary Frances, we would take turns fixing lunch. On this day, I thought it was her turn but as we walked through her little kitchen to the lovely porch where we sat and talked, I saw no lunch makings. I need to say right here that M.F.K. had a pretty forceful personality, and I knew better than to question her on something as inconsequential as lunch.

We talked for an hour or so, and she said, “Let’s fix lunch.” I was so relieved. We went into the kitchen where she gathered a nice fat baguette, several meats and cheeses, good mustard and more.

She cut the bread in half lengthwise, tore out some of the soft middle and proceeded to layer it with the meats, cheeses and mustard. She then replaced the top of the bread and proceeded to wrap the whole loaf repeatedly in plastic wrap. I didn’t say a word but thought silently to myself that the poor dear must be slipping a bit!

She grabbed the now-plastic jacketed loaf and announced, “Let’s talk some more,” and we went back out to the porch. Just as I was about to sit down, she handed me the loaf and instructed me to “sit on it.” After another 45 minutes or so she announced, “Lunch is ready!” Back in the kitchen she proceeded to unwrap the loaf, and I think you can imagine what happened. The loaf was nicely compressed, and the heat of my body had gently melted the meats and cheeses together. This was long before I was even aware of panini, but years later I dubbed this a “bunini.”

For lunch, she carefully sliced the loaf into finger sandwiches, and as I recall, we enjoyed it with a glass of Russian River pinot noir. Besides being delicious (if somewhat unorthodox), this warm sandwich was one of her favorite tricks to get rambunctious children to sit still for a while. I’m not sure if I fell into that category or not! Try it next time you have a chance, with children of all ages. It really does work, and it’ll help you remember M.F.K. Fisher.

A simple "Life Saver" broth from author M.F.K. Fisher with watercress and a spoonful of caviar. Chef John Ash spent many days visiting Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher in her Glen Ellen home and cherishes her book signed "with continuing admiration and affection" from 1983.  (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
A simple "Life Saver" broth from author M.F.K. Fisher with watercress and a spoonful of caviar. Chef John Ash spent many days visiting Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher in her Glen Ellen home and cherishes her book signed "with continuing admiration and affection" from 1983. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

This recipe is from “A Bold Knife and Fork.” Fisher noted that this could be made quite sophisticated by substituting some white wine for some of the tomato juice. “Another good soup for any weather is made either slowly or quickly, according to one’s speed of life,” she wrote. “Here is my quick way.”

It should be brought just to the steaming point and served immediately. For lunch or dinner, chopped watercress is a fine addition, and why not a spoonful of fresh caviar?

A Life Saver

Makes 1 to 4 servings (depending on how much quantity is cooked)

1 part good stock
1 part tomato juice or V-8
1 part clam juice

Mix, heat to simmer point and serve, seasoning and garnishing as wished. Good alone or with a sandwich at lunch.

____

This is an example of M.F.K’s delicious and simple approach to food. It’s not about a ton of ingredients — something we need to recapture.

Pumpkin Dumplings

Makes 4 servings

2 cups pumpkin pulp (canned will do well)
2 eggs slightly beaten
1 or 2 tablespoons flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
Nutmeg, salt, ½ clove mashed garlic, if wished

Make a thin purée of the pumpkin, eggs, flour and baking powder. Add the spices and stir well. Let stand 1 hour. Stir again and drop by spoonfuls in gently boiling salted water. As soon as the dumplings rise, skim into a bowl of very cold water. Drain well when cool. To serve, heat in a casserole dish with plenty of good butter.

Madeleine Kamman giving a cooking class at L’Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda, Maryland, in 1984. “She had an incredible capacity to inspire people,” one former student said. (Paul Hosefros/The New York Times)
Madeleine Kamman giving a cooking class at L’Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda, Maryland, in 1984. “She had an incredible capacity to inspire people,” one former student said. (Paul Hosefros/The New York Times)

Madeleine Kamman, an exacting teacher

Kamman was a fierce and exacting chef and teacher.

She cooked in restaurants and taught at cooking schools in France and America. Her own learning was inspired in childhood by her mother, aunts and great-aunts, whose cooking represented many regions of France.

She dedicated her third book, “When French Women Cook” (Athenaeum, 1976), to writing down their recipes, most recorded for the first time, in an attempt to preserve a record of a France long since gone.

She was also determined to “bring back to life the women with worn hands stained by vegetables peeled, parched by work in the house, garden or fields, wrinkled by age and experience” so her readers would know “that there was once a civilization that was human, tender, enjoyable and lovable.”

Her dedication reads, “This book, in its own way is a feminist manifesto, dedicated to the millions of women who have spent millennia in kitchens creating unrecognized masterpieces.”

Kamman also argued for the status of women in the professional kitchen.

“I took a stand on women in the professional kitchen before Women’s Lib came into the picture,” she said. “I had transcended the limits imposed on women by generations of professional chefs and found myself succeeding in a so-called male profession.”

She believed by the 1990s that the next generation would see as many women as men reaching the top. In a Boston Globe interview, she said that “My food is as good as any three-star restaurant in France, and you can quote me.”

By the time she died in 2018 at age 87, Kamman had established a reputation as a strong-willed and demanding teacher of traditional French cuisine for modern tastes and an influential chef whose cooking was deeply informed by her knowledge of food chemistry, botany, history and geography.

She authored seven cookbooks and hosted a PBS series, “Madeleine Cooks,” from 1984 through 1991. Her “New Making of a Cook” published in 1997, a revised version of her 1971 “Making of a Cook,” is a seminal work and can certainly be the basis for a complete French culinary education.

Kamman noted that this dish was a favorite at her Boston restaurant.

Halibut Steaks in Foil Packages

Serves 6

6 skinless halibut steaks,
4 ounces each and ½ inch thick
6 large slices good smoked salmon
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
¼ cup pure olive oil
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely slivered
1 small cucumber, peeled, cut in half lengthwise, seeded and thinly sliced
1 medium zucchini, cut in half lengthwise and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
10 kumquats, seeded and finely chopped
1 tablespoon finely scissored chives

Wrap each halibut steak with a slice of smoked salmon and salt and pepper lightly. Place each on a square piece of foil large enough to wrap the fish ”drugstore fashion“ (tightly wrapped).

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a skillet over medium-high heat and sauté the onion and garlic until golden. Add the cucumber and zucchini slices and stir fry for 1 minute. Salt and pepper lightly.

Divide the mixture into six portions and top each steak with one portion. Wrap the fish completely and set packages on a baking sheet. Bake for 7 minutes. Remove from the oven and let stand another 2 minutes, still tightly wrapped.

Meanwhile mix lemon juice, remaining olive oil, salt, pepper to taste and the kumquats and chives into a vinaigrette. Open the packages and slide each portion onto warm dinner plates. Spoon dressing over each steak and serve promptly.

_____

Pork tenderloin is very lean and, if overcooked, can toughen and dry out. This technique of searing first in a sauté pan and then finishing in the oven helps prevent this. Time to also use your instant-read thermometer.

Pork Tenderloin with Tarragon Sauce from author Madeleine Kamman.  (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Pork Tenderloin with Tarragon Sauce from author Madeleine Kamman. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Pork Tenderloin with Tarragon Sauce

Serves 4

1 to 1½ pound natural pork tenderloin (see note below)
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
For the sauce:
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 tablespoons finely chopped shallots
1 cup chicken stock
⅔ cup heavy cream
¼ cup cognac or brandy
2 tablespoons dry white vermouth
1 teaspoon grainy Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon
Fresh watercress for garnish

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Season tenderloin liberally with salt and pepper. Heat vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add tenderloin and brown on all sides, about 4 minutes. Transfer to a rimmed baking sheet, place in the oven and roast until meat registers 145 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, 10 to 12 minutes or so. Remove from oven and tent with foil to keep warm. Reserve skillet to make the sauce.

Pour off fat from pan and add olive oil. Over medium-high heat, add shallots and cook until softened and lightly browned, about 2 minutes.

Add stock and bring to a boil, scrapping the delicious browned bits off bottom of pan with a wooden spoon. Let boil until reduced to about ¼ cup, about 8 minutes.

Add heavy cream, brandy, wine, mustard and tarragon and cook until thickened, about 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to your taste. Stir in any juices from the cooked tenderloin.

To serve, cut tenderloin into ¾-inch medallions, place on warm plates, spoon sauce around and garnish with watercress.

Note: Avoid using “enhanced” pork which has been injected with a salt solution. Also, organic pork has more flavor.

Paula Wolfert, a culinary explorer

Paula Wolfert, who lives in Sonoma, is one of the most influential chefs of our time. She has authored nine cookbooks and countless articles over her nearly 50-year career.

Today, Paula is battling dementia, but she is not letting it slow her down. Emily Thelin authored a biography, “Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert’s Renegade Life,” in which Wolfert’s spirit and legacy are captured in one place. It is a great read with wonderful recipes.

Paula Wolfert in the kitchen at her home in Sonoma, Calif., March 11, 2017. Wolfert, the author of nine cookbooks, is suffering dementia. But she retains her insatiable drive and is fighting back with a regimen of brain-boosting foods. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)
Paula Wolfert in the kitchen at her home in Sonoma, Calif., March 11, 2017. Wolfert, the author of nine cookbooks, is suffering dementia. But she retains her insatiable drive and is fighting back with a regimen of brain-boosting foods. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)

After publishing her first cookbook, “Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco” (Harper & Row, 1932), about this staple of Morocco, Wolfert moved around incessantly, chronicling places and foods many of us knew little about back then: Southwest France, Spain’s Catalonia, Sicily, Turkey and the rest of the Middle East.

She circled the Mediterranean many times and brought the concept of authentic Mediterranean cooking into the American culinary mainstream. She single-handedly helped popularize foods we now take for granted: couscous, Aleppo pepper, preserved lemons, the tagines of Morocco, the duck confit and cassoulet of Southwest France, sumac, pomegranate molasses and more.

In her biography, Thelin noted that Wolfert “legitimized a basic approach to cooking that all good chefs now embrace: She has a deep and genuine respect and reverence for foods of tradition and place.”

The following are adapted from recipes by Wolfert. They appeared in Thelin’s “Unforgettable” and cookbooks by Wolfert.

Wolfert learned this method from famed French chef Michel Bras. A pan of water delivers enough moisture to steam the fish briefly at a low temperature, producing a final product that is soft and deliciously juicy. A thin sheet pan is essential. It’s such a simple technique that it should be in everyone’s repertoire.

Oven-Steamed Salmon

Makes 1 to 8 servings (depending on the quantity cooked)

Center-cut salmon fillets, preferably wild-caught Alaskan king or sockeye, 1 inch thick and of any size, from 5 ounces to 2½ pounds

Olive oil, for greasing the sheet pan

Flaky sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Snipped fresh chives

Lemon wedges

Position an oven rack in the lower third of the oven and a second rack in the upper third. Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Grease a thin, rimmed sheet pan with olive oil.

Carefully place a frying pan of just-boiled water on the lower oven rack. Arrange the salmon on the prepared sheet pan, season generously with salt and pepper and place on the upper oven rack. Bake until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part registers 110 degrees for rare, 115 degrees for medium-rare or 125 degrees for medium, about 10 to 12 minutes for 5-ounce fillets or 20 to 25 minutes for a 2 ½-pound fillet. (The color of the salmon will not turn dull, and the texture will be very juicy.)

Transfer the salmon to a platter or one or more individual plates and season with more salt and pepper, if desired. Sprinkle with chives and a squeeze of lemon and serve.

_____

This makes a great accompaniment to grilled meats or fish, such as the salmon above.

Cracked Green Olive, Walnut and Pomegranate Relish

Makes a generous 2 cups

Cracked Green Olive, Walnut and Pomegranate Relish from author Paula Wolfert of Sonoma.  (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Cracked Green Olive, Walnut and Pomegranate Relish from author Paula Wolfert of Sonoma. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

8 ounces cracked and pitted green olives, rinsed and chopped

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

¾ cup finely chopped toasted walnuts

2 green onions, white and light green parts, minced

¼ cup chopped flat leaf parsley

⅛ teaspoon Aleppo pepper flakes, or more to taste

2 teaspoons pomegranate molasses

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Flaky sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

½ cup fresh or thawed frozen pomegranate seeds

Combine all in a bowl and mix well. Can be served the same day but if covered and refrigerated, it will develop more flavor. Serve at room temperature.

_____

Typically the cooked legs are submerged in duck fat and refrigerated for storage up to a few months. You can buy duck fat and do this, but here it requires no additional fat. Store refrigerated and covered for up to 6 days if you choose this method.

Easy Duck Confit

Makes 6 servings

6 large whole duck legs (about 5 pounds)

3 tablespoons kosher salt (Diamond Crystal preferred)

2 tablespoons chopped shallot

2 tablespoons chopped garlic

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

2 teaspoons crushed black pepper

1 bay leaf, crumbled

½ teaspoon dried thyme

The night before, toss the duck legs with the salt, shallot, garlic, parsley, black pepper, bay leaf and thyme in a large bowl. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 24 hours.

The next day, preheat oven to 225 degrees. Rinse off the salt and seasoning. Drain but do not let the legs dry completely. With a fork or a skewer, prick the fatty skin all over.

Place the legs skin side up in a single layer in a large heavy pot. Cut a round of parchment paper to fit just inside the pot and place on top of the legs. Cover pot with a tight-fitting lid and place in the oven. Cook without opening the oven door for about 4 hours. At that point, meat should be separating from the bone and the joint between the leg and thigh should be very loose.

Turn off oven and leave the covered confit up to 2 hours longer to cool in the rendered fat. To refrigerate, stack the legs in a deep, narrow container; ladle the fat over to cover as much as possible and cool to room temperature. Cover tightly and refrigerate for up to 6 days.

To serve, preheat oven to 425 degrees. Scrape off all the fat and set aside for other uses such as the best fried potatoes you’ll ever have! Arrange legs skin side up on a rack set on a rimmed sheet pan. Bake until skin is browned and crisp, about 10 minutes. A brief run under a hot broiler will also help crisp the skin.

_____

This is my adaptation of a Wolfert recipe that I have cooked for years. You can substitute any firm fleshed fish, such as halibut or swordfish.

Sicilian-Style Tuna Steaks

Serves 4

2 large oranges

1 small sweet white onion

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

4 4-ounce yellowfin tuna steaks (¾ to 1 inch thick)

1 tablespoon capers, drained

8 oil-packed anchovy fillets, rinsed and finely chopped

Flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons roughly chopped fresh mint

Squeeze one orange to yield ½ cup juice. Peel and chop the other one and set aside. Cut the onion in half, then into thin slices (half moons).

Heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the tuna steaks and cook for 2 to 3 minutes per side, until golden. Transfer to a platter and cover loosely to keep warm.

Reduce the heat to medium. Add the onion, capers and anchovies to the skillet, stirring to “melt” the anchovies. Cook for 5 minutes or so, stirring often, or until the onion is translucent and has softened. Add the orange juice and mix well, then return the tuna to the skillet and cook for 2 minutes per side for medium-rare.

Transfer the tuna to a serving platter. Add the chopped orange to the sauce, stir and pour out the sauce/juices over and around the fish. Season the tuna with the salt and pepper to taste, then sprinkle the mint on top. Serve warm.

John Ash is a Santa Rosa chef, teacher, James Beard award-winning cookbook author and radio host of the KSRO “Good Food Hour” airing at 11 a.m. Saturday. He can be reached through his website, chefjohnash.com.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette