How I loved teaching at the Rutiz Family Farms in Arroyo Grande, California! First of all, it was a bold move to schedule an outdoor demo at the end of January, but the day dawned clear and crisp and warmed to a glorious 70 degrees (two days later, it was cold and raining).
Then there was the closed-loopedness of it all. Farmer Jerry Rutiz and I had rigged up a small “kitchen” and hay bale seating area on the soft, sandy earth in front of the produce stand. Behind the cluster of people gathered, I could see the steady flow of local customers making their purchases or picking up their CSA boxes—elderly couples, families with toddlers in strollers, and folks rushing directly from work just before closing. Proof that it is possible to shop and eat locally if the food is readily available. Immediately behind the stand were the fields from which my cooking ingredients had been plucked. I don’t mind telling you, the view gave me a rush.
We cooked the stuff Jerry grows that his customers think they don’t like or don’t know what to do with. I started with Brussels sprouts, one of the most under-appreciated brassicas, and did them three ways— a mind-changing, lightly steamed “sprouts salad” with walnut oil, lemon, and parmesan cheese; and balsamic- and rice vinegar-glazed roasted sprouts. I quickly sautéed mounds of Swiss chard ribbons with onions, garlic, and raisins, pan-roasted quartered fennel bulbs to caramelized sweetness on the camp stove flattop, and dished up a simple shaved fennel salad.
Jerry grows delicious winter squashes, and it surprised me to learn that even the common butternut often has his customers buffaloed. He says he sometimes shows up at customers’ homes only to find squash centerpieces on tables long after Thanksgiving–no idea they were meant for eating! So we cooked up a mash with fresh thyme and cheese for bruschetta (the recipe also makes a good base for soup), and slow-grilled chunks of squash with chile flakes and salt.
But, the showpiece of the day was this spur-of-the-moment sauté of cubed butternut squash and giant chanterelles that came from Louie Mello’s nearby property in See Canyon. Earthy and subtly sweet, it was pretty darn elegant.
Cooking on a camp stove using bare bones equipment and no electricity didn’t stop us from turning out beautiful food. That’s what I loved best about the day.