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Cowboy menu wrangles up hearty beans, ribs and cornbread

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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.”

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“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 2 1/2 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.

Barbecue Braised Beef Short Ribs

Serves 6 to 8

1/4 cup kosher salt

1/2 cup brown sugar

1 tablespoon smoked paprika

2 teaspoons ground ancho or chimayo chile powder

1/2 teaspoon celery salt

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 teaspoon onion powder

4 to 5 pounds boneless beef short ribs (5 to 5 1/2 pounds for bone-in)

2 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil

2 cups beef stock (or veal or chicken)

1 cup favorite barbecue sauce

In a food processor, combine first seven ingredients and process until thoroughly and evenly mixed.

Evenly coat both sides of the short ribs with the dry rub and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes or overnight if time allows.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

In a large, Dutch oven or deep roasting pan, heat oil for 2 to 3 minutes over medium-high heat, and add short ribs (do this in batches if necessary, so as not to crowd the pan.) Sear each side thoroughly and continue until all short ribs are finished. Add short ribs back to pan and pour in beef stock and barbecue sauce. Cover tightly with a lid or parchment paper and foil.

Place pan in oven and cook for at least 3 hours, or until fork-tender. Allow short ribs to cool slightly in sauce and serve warm.

You can also refrigerate entire pan overnight, lift off rendered fat from the sauce, and gently reheat before serving.

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“This is a wonderful, flavorful cornbread, delicious with butter and honey or all by itself,” Simmons wrote.

Cheddar-Jalapeño Skillet Cornbread

Serves 8 to 10

— Vegetable oil for pan

1 cup fine yellow cornmeal

1 cup all-purpose flour

2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon kosher salt

3 tablespoons sugar

— Dash ground chipotle chile pepper or cayenne pepper

1/4 cup fresh finely chopped jalapeño pepper

1 cup (4 ounces) shredded or diced sharp Cheddar cheese

8 ounces sour cream

3/4 cup milk

2 large eggs, beaten

4 tablespoons melted butter

Coat a 10-inch cast iron skillet (or 9-inch square baking pan) generously with vegetable oil and set aside. Heat oven to 400 degrees.

In a large bowl, combine the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, soda, slat, sugar, chipotle or cayenne pepper, chopped jalapeño peppers and cheese.

Place the skillet or pan in the oven for a few minutes and allow to heat through.

Whisk together the sour cream, milk, egg and melted butter. Stir the wet mixture into the dry ingredients. Spread in the hot, greased skillet or baking pan.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until set and lightly browned around the edges. Cool in the pan on a rack; cut into squares or wedges and serve warm.

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“Artichokes are delicious so many ways,”she writes. “But I think they’re at their best when grilled!” To trim artichokes, take kitchen shears and trim off the barbs at the end of each leaf. With a chef’s knife, trim the top and the stem.

Santa Maria Grilled Artichokes

Makes 8 servings

8 small or medium artichokes, trimmed

1 lemon

3 garlic cloves

3 sprigs thyme

4 tablespoons melted butter (plus extra for serving)

— For Santa Maria spice blend:

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon dried thyme or lemon thyme

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

1 tablespoon granulated garlic

2 tablespoons salt

Preheat grill. Cut lemon in half and squeeze out the juice in a bowl. Save for later.

Cut lemon into quarters. Set artichokes in 1 inch of salted water with lemon quarters, garlic and thyme. Cover tightly and cook on medium heat until artichokes are just tender (about 15 minutes). Remove from water, set aside for about 5 minutes, allowing them to dry.

Cut artichokes in half and remove the choke (with a spoon.) Brush with butter. Blend the spices together and sprinkle it inside the artichokes. Place the artichokes on a hot grill, flat side down, for about 3 mintues or until they start to brown and you see a few charred spots.

Sprinkle with lemon juice and serve with extra butter on the side.

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You can make this stew vegetarian by leaving out the chorizo and using a little extra oil.

Rancho Gordo Cowboy Beans with Chorizo

Serves 8 to 10

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 pound Mexican-style chorizo

4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin (toast and grind whole seeds if you are able)

1 teaspoon dried oregano

2 medium yellow onions, peeled and thinly sliced

1 pound Santa Maria Pinquinto, Red Appaloosa or Vaquita beans from Rancho Gordo (or a good-quality dried heirloom bean, soaked overnight and drained)

2 russet potatoes, peeled and diced

1 tablespoon coarsely chopped celery leaves

1 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh parsley

1 tablespoon coarsely chopped fresh cilantro

— Salt and pepper to taste

Heat oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add half the chorizo and brown, turning adn breaking up, for about 5 to 6 minutes. Remove and repeat with remaining meat. Pour out excess oil (leave only a thin film on bottom of pan) then return chorizo to pan.

Reduce heat to medium-low, add garlic, cumin and oregano, and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add onions adn cook until they begin to soften, about 5 more minutes. Pour in 6 cups water, cover and simmer until beans are just tender, about 1 hour.

Add potatoes, celery leaves, parsley and cilantro to stew. Remove the lid and continue simmering, until potatoes are tender, for 10 to 15 minutes. Adjust salt and pepper as needed.

Serve with Chilean Red Pepper Sauce on the side.

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Chilean Red Pepper Sauce

Makes about 2 1/2 cups

2 small tomatoes, seeded and chopped

1 red bell pepper, charred, skin and seeds removed and chopped

1 small yellow onion, peeled and c hopped

2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

1 small, hot red chile (such as serrano), minced, or 2 red Fresno chiles (for milder sauce, remove veins and seeds first)

1 tablespoon coarsely chopped fresh cilantro

1 tablespoon coarsely chopped fresh parsley

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

— Salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a bowl, combine tomatoes, bell pepper, onions, garlic, chile, cilantro and parsley. Add the oil and red wine vinegar; season with salt and pepper.

Cover and set aside so flavors can blend, about 1 hour.

Chop mixture very fine or process to a medium-coarse texture.

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“Don’t make this with under-ripe fruit,” she cautions. “They should gently give when pushed on top near the stem and should smell fragrant.”

Cast Iron Stonefruit Cobbler

Serves 8 to 10

For filling:

5 cups peeled, sliced ripe stonefruit (peaches, plums, cherries, apricots, pluots or a mix — about 2 pounds)

3/4 cup sugar

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 tablespoon soft butter

— For topping:

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons soft butter

1 large fresh egg, slightly beaten

1/4 cup coarse sanding sugar, raw sugar or crushed sugar cubes

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

For the filling: In a medium bowl, combine stonefruit, sugar, flour, cinnamon and vanilla. Pour filling into a 9-inch or 10-inch cast-iron skillet. Dot the fruit with butter.

For the topping: In a medium bowl, combine all batter ingredients and beat with a wooden spoon until smooth. Drop batter in around 9 portions on fruit filling, spacing evenly (the batter will spread during baking.) Sprinkle the top with coarse sugar. Bake 35 to 45 minutes, or until fruit is tender and bubbling, and crust is golden brown.

Serve warm with whipped cream or ice cream.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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