Sonoma County chefs share fall comfort food favorites

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Fall is a bittersweet season at best, bringing a hint of foreboding as the sunlight wans, the earth tilts away from the sun and the summer bounty begins its long, slow decay back into the earth.

The natural apprehension of the season has deepened after the recent firestorms, which flung smoke, fire and fear throughout Wine Country while leaving its residents — many without a place to call home — with a fierce craving for comfort.

In the fire’s wake, the weather has shifted slightly, with cool, autumn evenings luring us back to the kitchen and the soothing aroma of warm soups and cozy casseroles, braised meats and simmered sauces steaming the windows and insulating us from the losses we feel all around us.

To ease the community’s grief and sadness, we reached out to local chefs, cooks and foodies and asked them what foods provide solace, consolation and an inviting bridge over troubled waters. Here are their responses, along with a few of their recipes to cook upfor your family and friends this fall and winter, when the table can provide refuge and peace from the firestorm of ‘17.

“Buttermilk pancakes, bacon, fried potatoes and maple syrup. Pancakes were one of the first things I learned to cook.” — John Estes, chef/owner of Zazu Kitchen + Farm in Sebastopol.

“My first thought was a big bowl of buttery grits with a good grind of cracked pepper. This has to be one of the quintessential comfort foods of my childhood. While my mother didn’t serve grits this way, I’d like some freshly grated Parmesan cheese on top too. Filling, cozy, simple and soothing. Of course, some smoky bacon and scrambled eggs on the side would be comforting too.” — Cindy Daniel, co-owner of Healdsburg Shed

“Spinach Dip with tortilla chips. My gramma and mom made it for me when I was growing up. I lived on it in college when I had burners set up in my dorm and no oven. All it takes is a stove and a pot. Our fridge always has back-up spinach and sour cream. The sherry, nutmeg and Parm are the secret ingredients.” — Duskie Estes, chef/owner of Zazu Kitchen + Farm in Sebastopol

“Cornbread, along with boiled peanuts, immediately bring to mind my childhood in Charlotte, North Carolina. My father was born in nearby Rock Hill, South Carolina, and my mother’s family was from Northern Virginia/southern Maryland — different parts of the South with different traditions, but cornbread seemed to be common on family trips, whether to South Carolina or the Chesapeake Bay area of Maryland.” — Jim Cason, SRJC Culinary Arts Program Coordinator and chef/instructor

“With all that we’ve been facing lately, I’m going to go with soup, in part because it brings me back to childhood and the notion of being warm and safe. Velvet Cauliflower Soup ... is a very simple yet complex dish. The soup is smooth and heavy ... but the “trail mix” on top is all about surprising textures that are sweet, crunchy and fatty. Good fat is important. It feeds the brain and satisfies ... not just hunger.” — Ryan Fancher, executive chef of Barndiva in Healdsburg,

“Polpettas! (Meatballs!) They were one of my grandfather’s favorite foods — he only referred to them in Italian — and I endeavored to make the best ones for him. It’s also one of the dishes my friends and family ask for the most, served with spaghetti and my D.O.P. (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) red sauce. One caveat: Never twirl with a spoon! My grandfather was a stickler for proper Italian technique, using the side of the bowl.” — Marcy Smothers, Santa Rosa food writer, book author and “communitarian”

“I love soup at this time of year, especially the Lunchtime Lentil Soup from my cookbook, “Mom-a-licious.” I like it as a base for other options, including adding lamb and chicken. I also love spicy foods in the winter, so I would add some spicy chile to the recipe, or omit the curry and add lime and jalapeño for a slightly different flavor profile.” — Domenica Catelli, chef/owner, Catelli’s in Geyserville

“My quick go-to is tapioca pudding! No need for me to try to make this at home since the one I get at the store (Kozy Shack) is so delicious ... but I need to be careful.

“The one that we make and know for sure that gives comfort is our Pot Roast and Mashed Potatoes. This dish has been on our menu at The Fig Cafe & Winebar since we opened. It reminds me of my grandmom’s brisket when I was a kid.” — Sondra Bernstein, owner of The Girl & the Fig and Suite D in Sonoma, The Fig Cafe & Winebar in Glen Ellen and The Fig Rig.

“Lasagne means comfort food to me ... layers of pasta, cheese and spinach smothered in sauce that has simmered to perfection. First the aroma of simmering sauce fills your home for hours; again the aroma of the lasagne baking, and finally a meal meant to be shared with family and friends.

“The sauce recipe ... has been passed down through generations of my family, the Leveronis from Novato. I have made a few adjustments over the years ... it’s one of those dishes that is just as good reheated, if not better. It can be made ahead and kept in the freezer for those moments when you need a little comfort or have a last-minute crowd to feed.” — Laurie Figone, cookbook author, cooking contest competitor and TV personality of “Cooking with Laurie.” (

“The most vivid memory of cooking was watching Mom prepare for the ‘big feast’ — the annual church picnic. As I look back to those early years in Akron, Ohio, it always amazed me how she was able to put out a spread for 30 or more guests single-handedly, without the aid of mixers, food processors or timers. She had no rolling pin and used an iced tea glass for rolling out pastry dough and biscuits. I swear her biscuits were 5 inches across and 3 inches tall! And the big feast — boy, oh boy — huge baskets of golden fried chicken, salads, pies and ice cream churns for making fresh berry or peach ice creams on location.

“Mom’s church picnic menus always consisted of several desserts, but my favorite was her pound cake with a delightful, crisp crust and soft, moist crumb on the inside. Unfortunately, I was never able to get her written recipe, but over the years, I developed one that comes very close to hers.” — Bea Beasley, Santa Rosa chef/instructor.

The following recipe is from Duskie Estes of Zazu Kitchen + Farm.

Spinach Dip with Tortilla Chips

Makes about 1 quart

2 packages frozen spinach

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons flour

¼ cup sherry

3/4 cup Parmesan cheese

1 cup sour cream

— Fresh grated nutmeg, to taste

— Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste

— Bag of tortilla chips

Boil the frozen spinach until thawed. Strain and return spinach to pot. Add butter and flour and cook on medium heat. Stir, add sherry and let simmer for 5 minutes, stirring. Add sour cream, Parmesan, nutmeg, salt and pepper and bring to a simmer, stirring for 10 minutes. Eat with chips!

The following recipe is from Ryan Fancher of Barndiva. The red wine gastrique is optional, but the trail mix garnish adds a lot of texture and flavor.

Velvet Cauliflower Soup

Serves 6 to 8

2 heads cauliflower, stems removed, roughly chopped

— Milk to cover

1 cup sliced yellow onion

1 cup chicken or vegetable broth

2 tablespoons butter

— Salt and pepper

For Trail Mix Garnish (see below)

Red Wine Gastrique (see below)

In a medium soup pot on medium heat, combine the cauliflower, butter and onion. Sweat the mixture to soften the onion. Cover with milk and gently cook until cauliflower is tender (about 20 minutes). Blend in a blender or with an immersion blender and season with salt and pepper. Add stock or milk if the soup is too thick.

For trail mix garnish: Bring equal parts white wine and sugar to a boil, cover 1/2 cup golden raisins and let stand. Toast 1/2 cup almonds until golden brown and reserve. Rinse 1/2 cup capers with cold water and reserve. Cut 1 cup cauliflower tops off the stems, then cook in boiling, salted water until firm but soft. Lay on a napkin to dry and reserve. Dice 1/4 cup sage into small pieces.

In a large sauté pan, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil just until the smoke point. Add the cauliflower florets. Then add the capers, raisins, almonds, sage and a touch of butter (use caution as hot oil and water can spatter.)

For red wine gastrique: Reduce one bottle of red wine in a saucepan with 1 cup of sugar. When it has reduced to about a cup, let cool to room temperature. Do not refrigerate. Add ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil. Do not whisk — this is meant to be a broken sauce.

Serve hot soup in warm bowls, top with garnish and drizzle with gastrique.

The following is from Domenica Catelli of Catelli’s in Geyserville, author of the family cookbook, “Mom-a-licious.”

Lunchtime Lentil Soup

Serves 6 to 8

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1 medium yellow or white onion, minced

— Handful cilantro, minced, and extra for garnish

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon ground cumin

3 teaspoons curry powder (not the spicy kind)

8 cups chicken or vegetable broth

2¼ cups dried red lentils

1 14-5-ounce can crushed tomato

2 carrots, peeled and minced

2 stalks celery, minced

— Lemon juice (optional)

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

Add garlic, cilantro and spices and cook for 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 minced celery and carrot for a surprising crunch, and a squeeze of lemon.

The following recipe is from Jim Cason, SRJC Culinary Arts chef/instructor and program coordinator. “This recipe uses invert sugar (corn syrup or glucose), and it’s essential to have it come out moist,” he said. “Another key to success is using a cast-iron baking vessel, whether a cast-iron skillet or loaf pan. This gives the great crust that can’t be formed any other way.”


Serves 8 to 10

Dry ingredients:

3 cups all-purpose flour

3 cups fine cornmeal

1/4 cup sugar

2 tablespoons baking powder

3 tablespoons salt

Wet ingredients:

6 eggs

3 cups whole milk

3 tablespoons corn syrup or glucose syrup

12 ounces unsalted butter, melted but not hot

3 corn cobs, stripped and corn milk saved (if available)

1 1/2 cups shredded cheddar cheese (optional)

1 1/2 Anaheim chile, diced finely, or 1 tablespoons mild chili powder (optional)

Blend dry ingredients. In another bowl, combine wet ingredients. Carefully stir dry ingredients into wet ingredients and mix only until no more dry appears. Cover and allow to rest at least 30 minutes to hydrate.

While hydrating, heat oven to 400 degrees along with a well-seasoned 10-inch cast-iron or two 5-inch cast-iron skillets.

Once oven is hot, batter should be ready. Remove pan or pans from oven (carefully) and pour cornbread batter into pans. Pans should never be more than two-thirds full.

Cook for about 20 minutes or until golden brown and firm. Remove, cover lightly, and allow to cool slightly. Doneness can be tested like a cake: a clean toothpick inserted in the thickest area will come out clean when cornbread is done.

The following recipe is from “Plats du Jour” (2011) by Sondra Bernstein. “Pot roast and mashed potatoes is the perfect comfort dish,” she writes. “Like the other braised meats in our book, the trick is to buy the meat from a reputable butcher, use great ingredients in the marinade and braising liquid, and don’t be cheap with the wine.”

Pot Roast with Mashed Potatoes and Greens

Makes 6 servings

4 pounds beef roast, butcher-tied (see note below)

2 tablespoons blended oil

3 large onions, quartered

3 large carrots, cut into medium dice

3 celery stalks, cut into medium dice

1 head fennel, diced

1 whole head garlic, top half cut off

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1/2 bunch fresh thyme

1 sprig fresh rosemary

2 bay leaves

5 whole black peppercorns

1 star anise

2 whole cloves

1 (750 ml) bottle red wine (preferably a full-bodied syrah(

1 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

1 quart veal stock (or beef broth)

For the potatoes:

4 russet potatoes, peeled and cubed

2/3 cup heavy cream

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 tablespoon salt

1/4 teaspoon white pepper

For the greens:

2 pounds greens, such as chard or kale, stemmed

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon minced garlic

2 tablespoons minced shallots

1/4 cup dry white wine

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

— Salt and pepper to taste

To prepare the pot roast: Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Season the meat liberally with salt. Heat the oil in a large roasting pan on high heat and sear the meat on all sides, getting good color on the meat, about 4 to 6 minutes per side. Remove the meat from the pan and set aside.

In the same pot, add the onion, carrot, and celery and sauté until the vegetables are golden brown. Add the garlic, flour, thyme, rosemary, bay leaves, peppercorns, star anise, and cloves, stirring well to remove any browned bits from the bottom of the pan.

Add the red wine and Worcestershire sauce. At a medium simmer reduce the liquid by half, about 10 minutes, and continue stirring to ensure that all of the ingredients are incorporated. Add the veal stock and bring to a simmer. Return the meat to the pan

and cover the pan loosely.

Roast for 2½ hours or until a knife inserted into the meat pulls out without resistance. Let the meat rest for 10 to 15 minutes and strain the sauce onto the pot roast, discarding the vegetables.

To prepare the potatoes: Place the potatoes in a pot, cover them with cold water, and cook until soft, about 15 to 20 minutes. Drain the potatoes and run them through a food mill or potato ricer. Place the cream and butter in a saucepan and heat until the butter has melted completely.

Season with salt and pepper to taste. Place the potatoes in a large bowl and, using a whisk, slowly work in the cream mixture. Once all of the liquid has been added, whisk the potatoes until they have a light and fluffy texture. (Be careful not to overwhip or the potatoes will have a glue-like texture.) Season with salt and pepper to taste.

To prepare the greens: Tear the greens into large pieces. Heat the oil in a large pan and sauté the garlic and shallots until translucent, about 2 to 4 minutes. Add the greens and cook until they begin to wilt, about 1 to 2 minutes. Add the white wine, stir, and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated. Add the butter and season with salt and pepper to taste.

To serve: In each medium bowl, place the greens and the potatoes side by side. Add a few slices of pot roast on top of the potatoes and drizzle the sauce on top.

Cook’s Tip: The pot roast will cook more evenly if it is contained in a uniform shape. We suggest butcher-tying the meat to accomplish this. Whether you are stuffing a piece of meat or just holding its shape, tie the meat with twine almost like you are tying a roll of paper towels or a newspaper. This will help to hold in the juices and will be easier to slice.

This recipe is from cookbook author Laurie Figone of Petaluma, who has won many amateur cooking contests.

Laurie’s Lasagne

Makes 1 13-inch x9-inch x4-inch deep pan

For sauce:

1 quart olive oil

1 pound butter

4 large yellow onions, skinned and chopped

1 head garlic, peeled and minced fine

2 red bell peppers, chopped fine

1 bunch celery, remove center leafy section and use this (save stalks for another use), chopped fine

9 carrots peeled (about 8 inches), shredded fine

1 bunch fresh parsley, minced fine

1 gallon tomato sauce

1 gallon pureed tomatoes

1 bottle red wine (your favorite Sonoma County zinfandel, cabernet or even pinot npir)

1/2 cup Italian seasoning

1/4 cup Worcestershire Sauce

4 bay leaves

4 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoon pepper

For lasagne assembly:

4 cups prepared sauce

2 cups cooked spinach, squeezed dry

1 cup ricotta cheese

1/2 teaspoon garlic salt

— Cooked lasagne noodles (enough to make 4 layers of pasta)

— Parmesan cheese

2 pounds shredded mozzarella cheese

For sauce: Using a 4-gallon stock pot, heat olive oil and butter on medium heat to melt butter. Add chopped onion, minced garlic, chopped red bell pepper, chopped celery and shredded carrots. Sauté over medium-low heat 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Stir in minced parsley, tomato sauce, tomato puree, red wine, Italian seasoning, Worcestershire sauce, bay leaves, salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer. Simmer for 2 hours stirring occasionally.

Let cool to room temperature. Refrigerate or freeze sauce in pint/quart size containers.

For lasagne assembly: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Stir together spinach, ricotta and garlic salt; set aside.

Spread 3/4 cup prepared sauce in bottom of 13-inch x9-inch x 4-inch deep pan to cover evenly. Cover with a layer of cooked lasagne noodles. Spread with 3/4 cup prepared sauce and sprinkle lightly with Parmesan cheese. Cover with another layer of cooked lasagne noodles.

Spread spinach mixture evenly over noodles. Cover with 3/4 cup sauce and then sprinkle lightly with Parmesan cheese.

Cover with another layer of noodles. Spread with 3/4 cup sauce and then 1 pound of the shredded mozzarella. Cover with last layer of noodles. Top with remaining 3/4 cup sauce. Sprinkle lightly with Parmesan cheese and then remaining mozzarella cheese.

Cover tightly with a piece of foil (Hint: spray side of foil facing lasagne to prevent cheese from sticking while it bakes). It can now go in the freezer (defrost before baking) or into a preheated 375 degree oven.

Bake for about 50 minutes; until bubbling. Remove foil and bake for an additional 10 minutes.

The following recipe is from chef/instructor Bea Beasley of Santa Rosa.

Mom’s Big Feast Pound Cake

Makes 16 to 20 servings

1 pound cake flour (about 4 cups), sifted before measuring, plus extra for flouring pan)

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 pound unsalted butter, softened (plus extra for greasing the pan)

1 pound powdered sugar + 3 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 pound large eggs (9 to 10 eggs)

1 tablespoon pure vanilla extra

Have all ingredients at room temperature. Thoroughly grease and flour a 10-inch tube pan with removable bottom. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Mix flour and salt together and set aside. In an electric mixer, cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy. With mixer running, add the eggs, one at a time, beating just until the yellow disappears. After all eggs have been added, add vanilla and beat for another minute.

Add flour/salt mixture a little at a time and mix on low speed only until flour mixture has been incorporated. POur cake batter into prepared cake pan and bake in middle of oven for 1 hour to 1 hour and 20 minutes, or until cake is golden and tester (long, wooden skewer) comes out clean.

Cool cake in pan on a rack for about 15 minutes, then invert onto a rack and cool completely.

Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 521-5287 or On Twitter @dianepete56.

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